You wear ’em on a daily basis. You even match your outfits to them. Your life feels incomplete without them. But what do you know about your baseball cap except for the fact that they look cool? SoJones.com talks to the ball cap expert, James Lilliefors, whose book “Ball Cap Nation: A Journey Through the World of America’s National Hat” hit the shelves in June, 2009.
SoJones.com: Can one really see changing trends in ball caps? At a glance, to me all they do is change colors. But is there really a significant change in shapes or ergonomic considerations?
James Lilliefors: Yes, the ball cap market has diversified tremendously over the past decade. Recent trends include the flat (as opposed to curved) brim and the growing popularity of “organic” caps. A high-end market has emerged, also, with caps selling for up to, believe it or not, $10,000 (these are custom made caps with a 22-karat gold button on top). And there’s a big market for vintage-style caps that recreate those worn by early 20th-century minor league, Negro League and MLB teams. The New Era Cap Company has introduced several lines of limited edition caps designed by hip-hop artists. Another trend is “garment-washed” and “distressed fabric” caps, which are new but appear to be worn out. There’s a cap for everyone’s taste, really. As the market has grown, so have the choices. And the market has grown in a big way. In 1982, New Era manufactured 1.4 million caps; in 1993, 12.4 million; and last year, 35 million. We’ve become a ball cap nation.
What are the things that make a cap so valuable? Is it true that the worse a cap looks, the better price it would get?
If so, I’d have some pricey ones. Just kidding. Yes, in some cases, old, worn-out caps are extremely valuable. The most ever paid for a baseball cap was $328,000 – for a sweat-stained cap that Babe Ruth wore in the 1920s. Babe Ruth caps are the most valuable ones right now. As far as cultural value goes, that seems to be cyclical. The old mesh-top trucker-style caps worn in the 1970s, for instance, acquired a new cachet this decade after they were worn and promoted by Ashton Kutcher and Justin Timberlake. As for old caps, worn out or not, there is a growing market for them. More than any other country, we are a nation of collectors. I was in an antiques shop the other day and saw trucker caps from the 1970s for sale along with sports caps from the 1960s and caps from the New York World’s Fair of 1964.
You wrote about cap collector Roger “Buckey” Legried in your book. With him as a reference, do you see caps as a fashion investment tool in the future? You know, like a Birkin bag for ladies?
Buckey has the largest collection of caps in the world – more than 92,000 (he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records) but they’re mostly farmer/trucker style caps. He’d like to give his collection to a museum one day, but to display them wouldn’t be practical – it would take a wall 10 feet high and a half mile long, he notes.
Regarding caps as a “fashion investment,” I do think there is a trend toward higher end, fashion caps. Gucci, Prada and Christian Dior all make caps that sell for around $200. And a California company called Zerino is trying to position itself as a luxury headwear-maker with custom-made caps selling for thousands of dollars. The ball cap has become part of American fashion, and will continue in that role. Here’s what Ellen Goldstein, chair of Accessories for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, says: “Caps transcend gender. They’re not obtrusive, they’re not abrasive. They’re an icon.”
Caps and trucker hats… are they the same? Trucker hats are just one of many hybrids of the baseball cap. Trucker hats are mesh-top caps with a high foam front, often advertising a product – Mack Trucks or Caterpillar or John Deere, for instance. Their cousins are the farmer cap and the company cap. The farmer cap advertises an agricultural product and the company cap any other business (an auto dealership, for example). These emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and were often given away by the businesses they were advertising. They were mostly worn outdoors and the mesh top was designed to keep the head cooler than a more traditional wool baseball cap. The proliferation of these caps – also called “gimmes” because they tended to be giveaways – was one of the factors that led to the widespread acceptance of the baseball cap in the United States.
You also wrote about cap etiquette in the book. Without giving it all away, what do you think today’s cap wearers lack of in the etiquette department?
Cap wearers have different ideas about etiquette. I talked with two of the top etiquette experts in the country for the book and even they couldn’t agree on everything, cap-wise – whether it’s okay to wear your cap at a casual or fast food restaurant, for instance. That’s become a gray area in our culture. I detail stories in the book about people who wore their ball caps to church and to government meetings and the community debates that ensued. Some folks consider wearing their ball caps a sign of personal expression. But there are some cases in which respect for other people/institutions trumps personal expression. Wearing a ball cap to a funeral or to a fancy restaurant is not appropriate, for instance – and if you do so, someone will probably let you know. In general, removing your cap around other people is a sign of respect and is probably a good idea.
The caps go way beyond fashion and function. What’s the craziest use of a cap you’ve found?
Not long ago, a team of researchers in Taiwan designed a baseball cap with a brain computer interface that is able to detect and analyze electrical activity in the brain. Then there is the so-called “spy cap,” which has a hidden camera in the crown so you can surreptitiously takes photos or videos of other people. (If interested, you’ll find a number of these for sale on the Internet.) In the book there’s a chapter called The Wild World of Caps, which explores some of the more unusual caps and cap uses.
What was your first cap? How many caps do you own? Is there a cap that’s never been used within your collection, or is there a real special cap with its own story?
I have a few dozen caps. Mostly, I collect them when I travel, buying at least one on every vacation. If a cap was purchased in a place that I might not get back to for a while, or ever, I tend to wear it sparingly. I have several caps from trips overseas that I rarely wear. Probably the one I like best is from much closer to home – the Tween Waters Inn on Captiva Island, Florida. On the side of the crown is the word “Relax.” It’s a good message to remember. First cap? I was about 5 years old. There’s a picture of me wearing it in the book.
Who do you think is the all-time best cap-wearing public figure?
The Dalai Lama.
And who do you think should just get their caps off and live with the fact that they look better without?
Politicians who wear them to create an impression that they are “one of the people.” Caps are an attitude, not just a prop. It’s usually not difficult to detect a faux cap-wearer.
If you were a cap, whose head do you want most to rest on and why?
Probably the President, because of all the interesting and challenging places we’d travel.
Still want to know more about ball caps? Read Jim’s sharp observations and charming but meticulous research about how a headwear can contribute so much to a country, all in the book. You can get Jim’s Ball Cap Nation on Amazon . While we’re on the subject, here’s some SoJones editors’ cream of the ball cap crop picks for this season: