The Incredible Story Beneath Jacques Cousteau’s Famous Red Hat


Source: By Laurie Wilson, Blue Ocean Network

A red hat, a hard hat and Winchester Cathedral: How did Jacques Cousteau’s famous red hat become an icon?

Calypso Captain, SCUBA diver, filmmaker, conservationist, scientist, innovator and author, Jacques Yves Cousteau was born on June 11, 1910 in Saint-Andre-de Cubzac France.  Known as “Jyc” (rhymes with “chic” and pronounced with the soft J in ‘Jacques’), Cousteau was not only an iconic explorer – but a fashion icon.


Seriously. Can you think of JYC without the red knit hat? And where did that hat come from anyway? We did some digging so you don’t have to.  Here is the unusual story of a red hat, a hard hat and Winchester Cathedral.

Sifting through maritime history, it turns out the knitted hat has its origins in Britain as standard issue for the British Army and Royal Navy divers, and as far back as the end of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, many hundreds of civil engineering divers were wearing the red hat.  Called a “cap comforter” in admiralty speak, most early pictures of hard hat divers show them wearing a cozy cap while topside. But the transformation of red woolen hat into bold fashion statement is attributed to the most famous hardhat diver in the world, William Walker.

William Walker and Winchester Cathedral


William Walker (1869-1918) was Chief Diver at legendary British commercial diving company Siebe Gorman & Company Ltd. (est. 1830), overseeing some 200 divers working around the world. But Walker’s real claim to fame was single-handedly saving one of England’s 11th century Coronation Cathedrals from collapsing.  It was a diving job.

Opened in 1093, Winchester Cathedral is one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. Early on the cathedral had been a church of choice for royal weddings, funerals and marriages.  Fast forward to 1906 and Winchester Cathedral had a weighty problem. When the cathedral’s builders had laid the foundations back in 1079, they unknowingly placed them on top of a peat bog  –  and as a consequence the cathedral was sinking.

The only way to save the cathedral was to remove the layer of peat below and fill the space with concrete. The renovation was complicated because the 3.5 meter space below the Cathedral was filled with turbid ground water. This was a job for a diver; and being one of the best in the world, William Walker was called to the task. (photo – Walker in front of Winchester Cathedral). The task was monumental, and William Walker became known as the diver who saved the cathedral.

Between 1906 and 1911, Walker spent six hours a day in 20′ of pitch black water, working blind to under-pin the foundations of Winchester Cathedral. Against these daunting odds Walker managed to lay 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks and 900,000 engineering bricks with the help of a topside support crew of 150. For his work, Walker was awarded the honour of the Royal Victorian Order. Today, a bust of Walker is on display at the cathedral, with Walker sporting the famous cap comforter.

More vintage photos of this major undertaking can be found at the Winchester Cathedral site.

From Cozy Cap to Fashion Statement

Some may argue if such gallant efforts catapulted the red cap into fashion fame, but the fact remains that the red cap comforter became, and still is, the trademark of commercial divers. By the 1950’s, the use of S.C.U.B.A. equipment moved from commercial to general use, thanks to aqualung inventors Emile Gagnan and Jacques Yves Cousteau:  With Cousteau and other diving personalities upholding the diving fashion statement, the red woolen cap soon became the world wide recognized symbol of the diver. (photo – Rolex Magazine)

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July 26, 2017 |

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