Originally created 08/14/97

The changing of the hats



LONDON (AP) - Worn since the Napoleonic wars and beloved by the tourists who crowd Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard, the British army's towering bearskin hat may be about to meet its Waterloo.

The Ministry of Defense said Wednesday it has ordered a search for synthetic alternatives to bearskin, out of concern for the welfare of the Canadian brown bear. Bearskin hat lovers countered that only skins from culled bears are used.

Past attempts to produce fake bearskin have ended in disaster. "When it rained the hats became rather bedraggled - like a bad hair day," said ministry spokesman Maj. Michael Devlin.

"They were also subject to static electricity, which was rather embarrassing when they passed under (electricity) pylons."

Devlin said Defense Minister Lord Gilbert took a personal interest in animal rights issues and wanted to see bearskin phased out as soon as a substitute could be found.

Five elite infantry regiments - the Coldstream, Scots, Welsh, Irish and Grenadiers guards - adopted tall bearskin hats to commemorate their victory in 1815 over Napoleon's forces at Waterloo, where France's elite troops, the Imperial Guard, had worn bearskins to appear more intimidating.

Soldiers today wear the 18-inch-tall bearskin, which weighs around 11/2 pounds, for ceremonial duties and to guard royal residences like Buckingham Palace and St. James' Palace in London and Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II's weekend home west of the capital. Soldiers in bearskins also protect the Tower of London.

The bearskins come from Canada's brown bear, which Inuit hunters are allowed to hunt selectively to control the size of the population. The army says no bears are killed solely to provide the bearskins.

One senior officer said his regiment would fight any move to replace the bearskin.

"I am not sure exactly what the problem is," said Gen. Sir Willie Rous of the Coldstream Guards. "The bearskin is available and the animals are not endangered, indeed they are culled. The bearskin is genuine and it is traditional.

"It also lasts a very, very long time. I wear one I got through my family. One officer I know has one that is at least 100-years-old and was worn by his father and grandfather," said Rous.

Devlin said the army had gradually found alternatives to skin and fur regimental uniforms and decorations such as leopard skin sashes, animal drum skins and some fur hats, "except where we have kept the old animal skins."

But "not even the fashion industry has come up with a wearable alternative" to bearskin, he said.