Cat9984 asked, “Any chance you learned whether they have to kill a fresh bear when someone joins the Palace Guards?”
Great question, and it led me to an exhaustive ten-minute search. Or maybe that was half an hour.
I’ll start my answer with a Mirror Online article about the Ministry of Defense searching for a fake fur replacement for the hats. The article looked like it had been published just that day, but when I checked it again the next day it looked like it had just been published again. In other words, I haven’t a clue how old it is. It’s either breaking news or old—oh, hell, I can’t help myself—hat.
But forget the timing; let’s talk about the substance. Apparently animal rights activists have made an impact, even on the bastion of tradition that is the Ministry of Defense. I think it was Margaret Sanger who said something along the lines of “Never think that a small, determined band of people cannot change the world. Indeed, throughout history it is the only thing that ever has.” Or something like that. I’m working from (a screamingly imperfect) memory, so that may turn out to be a quote from Groucho Marx, and the quote may have been something along the lines of “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” What I can say for certain is that there’s a quote out there somewhere. From someone. And it’s great. It might even be relevant, depending on whether it’s the one about changing the world or the one about the dog.
But I’ve wandered, haven’t I?
The bearskin hats were adopted by the grenadiers in the 18th century, because the brimmed hats they’d been wearing blocked their view when they hurled grenades. (We’re in the land of Wikipedia now, having left the Mirror for the moment. I’m providing a link, although by now the article may have been changed so much that it claims the hats were designed by aliens who misunderstood the shape of the human head.)
The bearskin replacements are 18 inches tall. You might think a hat that tall would draw unwelcome attention on the battlefield, but 18th-century British troops weren’t known for their guerrilla tactics, and maybe once you convince yourself that a bright red jacket is a good idea, a foot-and-a-half-high hat doesn’t strike you as a problem.
The hats, according to the Mirror article, are made from the skins of Canadian black bears, and 100 new hats are needed each year. Why 100? It doesn’t say. Do they have 100 new recruits each year? Do they only have 3, but 97 of the existing soldiers leave their hats in pubs when they stop off after work and never find them again? Do the moths eat holes in them? I just don’t know.
What I can tell you is that each hat requires the skin of an entire bear. Now I lived in Minnesota long enough to know that bears are bigger than hats. Much bigger than hats. Even foot-and-a-half high hats. Even the relatively small black bear.
Ah, but are the hats really are made from the skins of black bears? The Royal Hats website (yes, my friends, there is either a website or a blog out there about everything; every single thing) claims they’re made from the skins of brown bears, which have thicker pelts than black bears. Then they’re dyed. Who’s right? I don’t know. I haven’t found an official government website that covers the topic, important though it is. Good thing it wasn’t a question in the Life in the U.K. Test or I’d have been kicked out of the country.
Where does the rest of the bear go? Dunno again. I do know that each hat ends up weighing 1.5 pounds.
The army argues that the bears—whether black or brown—are culled anyway to keep the populations in check, so no bears are killed specifically to make the hats and therefore it’s okay. They add that the hats are a symbol of Britain recognized around the world. If they have anything to say about whether the world, having recognized the hats, takes them seriously, I failed to find it.
The Independent does date its articles, and in 2008 wrote that the hats were “likely” to be replaced, and that Stella McCartney or Vivienne Westwood might be designing the replacements. No, it’s not dated on April Fool’s day; it was posted in August. Apparently, the Ministry of Defense would be meeting with “leading designers” on the question. Now that’s a meeting I’d love to have reported on. Forget the hats—I’ll never be a fashion blogger—what I’d have been listening for was how the two groups communicated. If at all.
Since the only thing I know about Westwood is how to spell her name, I punched her into Google. She offers a nice little swimsuit with a strategically printed fig leaf for £220 pounds. The male equivalent is a steal at £125. The models, I have to say, do not look happy in them, and I don’t blame them. The suits are—as folks in Minnesota say when they disapprove of something—interesting.
And Stella McCartney? She’s offering a fizzy little black dress for £1,795. Sorry: No male equivalent seems to be available.
Neither the swimsuit or the dress strikes me as an obvious choice for the Place Guard, but the times they are a-changin’ and who am I to close off possibilities?
It must’ve been an interesting meeting, but I can’t find any reports on it and they seem not to have agreed on a replacement hat, because the bearskins are still in use.
And what, you might want to know, goes on underneath the hat? Well, one guy got really and truly bored under his and started cutting up in front of Buckingham Palace. My only question is why don’t they all? The Ministry of Defense assured the press that he wasn’t likely to be jailed for it.
Jailed? I know there are things about tradition that I don’t understand, but aren’t they over-reacting a bit by even considering it?
In the meantime, anti-fur activists continue to put pressure on the Ministry of Defense, and I’m going to take advantage of that and set up a meeting to discuss replacing the bearskin with a tasteful little flowered sunhat. The Palace Guard doesn’t throw grenades anymore, so the brims shouldn’t be a problem.
I’m sure they’ll be interested.