Why are adults rocking crazy kid toques?

Just because the hat fits doesn’t mean you should wear it

Knit pickers wear many toques

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

Knit pickers wear many toques
Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

Canadians face the same dilemma every winter: finding a hat that’s warm and looks good. This season, the Elmer Fudd-style fur-lined trapper hat is having a moment, and there are more boxy Russian faux-fur hats than usual. But stylists and designers agree the toque is the best choice. “Everyone can wear it,” says Vancouver hat designer Claudia Schulz, “people of all ages. And the price is right.”

But just because everyone can wear it doesn’t mean they should. Take the novelty toque. “I see adults walking down the street in what is clearly an animal-face hat for a kid and I’m shocked,” says Schulz, “You shouldn’t cheap out—buy a proper hat.”

Stacy Hall, owner of Toque Town on Granville Island in Vancouver, has seen a steady stream of customers interested in the Mohawk toque, which looks like a knit horse’s mane, and the Pook Toque, made of two grey wool socks that flop around like bunny ears, not to mention Knitwits, a line of toques with earflaps that comes in more than 30 styles including zebra, cow, penguin, and yeti monster. Knitwits have been very popular with tweens, university students and far too many adults. “If rocking a panda hat with pom-poms at 38 makes you feel good,” says Vancouver stylist Amy Lu, “then go for it. Having said that, it might not be appropriate if you are looking for a date or a place of employment.” The novelty toques have been around for a few years, but Hall feels they are reaching a saturation point.

The toque, as the spelling suggests, is a French Canadian contribution to the fabric of the country. Originally the winter headgear of the habitants, the French settlers, it was adopted by skiers and snowshoers as far back as 1871. Now it refers to any close-fitting knitted hat, usually with a pompom.

There are still plenty of classics to consider: the tight-fitting skull cap (flat or rolled) as seen on Jacques Cousteau or U2’s the Edge; the slouchy one sported by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and David Beckham; and the pilot style with earflaps, pompoms and tassels, minus the animal motif. The Bob and Doug McKenzie, a striped wool hat with a hockey team insignia and pompom, remains an unironic option for plenty of proud hosers. In choosing a toque, says Lu, “keeping warm is essential and feeling comfortable equates to looking good. I love skull caps paired with short hair, and find the oversized ‘grunge’-inspired ones look good on everyone.”

The absolute latest is the designer toque. Schulz’s new line includes four artistic takes in knitted wool, which sell for $69 and $79. “I ventured into toques last year,” she says. “It works well because you can just throw it in your bag.”

Duanrast toques—made from wool and recycled fox and rabbit fur—debuted to much praise at the 2010 Montreal Fashion Week. Designer Annik St-Arnaud, a recent graduate of the Montreal Centre for Contemporary Textiles, was inspired by taxidermy and body art, but her Nordic collection mirrors the recent trend in novelty hats. One has a fox fur mohawk and others resemble animal heads. “With the fur I’m using,” says St-Arnaud, “there is an animal feel. But I don’t want people to feel goofy. I want them to feel proud and stylish and comfortable.” The Duanrasts are chic, but it’s hard to imagine paying haute couture prices—they start at $250—for something likely to get left behind at the bar.

That’s what makes the novelty hats so attractive—the $20 price tags. Pook Toque creators Tony Pook and Kevin McCotter have no trouble attracting attention wherever they go—be it their 200th craft show or the Sundance Film Festival. The St. Mary’s, Ont., natives are happy to demonstrate 39 ways to style the sock ears, including the bowler cap, Cindy-Lu Who, Robin Hood, Double Vanilla Dip Jelly Donut, Mullet, Beaver Tail and Rat Tail, which is a charming and usually successful sales pitch. In the end the buyer is left holding a goofy hat made out of grey wool work socks. And then the novelty wears off.