For sale in the market stalls of Palermo today and worn throughout Sicily and even in Calabria and elsewhere is the Coppola hat, a type of flat hat that is an iconic symbol of Sicily. The history is uncertain, as is the origin of the name. One popular theory is that it originated in England where a law in 1571 required males older than 6 years (except for nobles and the upper class) to wear woolen hats on Sundays and holidays. The purpose was to protect the domestic production of wool, which was the basis of the country’s economy at the time.
How did the coppola hat reach Sicily? According to this theory, there was a migration in the late 19th century of English families in search of bargains and investments. Very much in vogue in England and Ireland, the flat cap took the Italian name of “coppola,” which came from the English word “cup.” However, others believe that the name “coppola” is more likely to be a Sicilian, Calabrian or Apulian adaptation of the Latin word “caput” for head. The Sicilian word “còppula” also means head.
Another theory on the history says that the Sicilian cap is a variation of the English gamekeeper’s cap introduced in Sicily around 1800 when Ferdinando I, King of Naples and Sicily, left Naples for Palermo in the face of Napoleon’s invasion of southern Italy. British troops were stationed in Sicily to protect the island from a possible French invasion and to protect Sicilian sulphur, which was critical to Britain’s military strength and to its industrial revolution.
An avid hunter, Ferdinando was often accompanied on these outings by British military and diplomats. The Sicilian aristocracy began to imitate the British modes of dress, like the tweed hunting caps. Before long, Sicilian peasants were imitating the style. The hat provided protection from the sun and allowed workers to wear an inexpensive item that they considered a luxury. Before long, landowners began to refer to submissive workers as “una buona coppola.” As the mafia gained control of the countryside, mafiosi used the same term for citizens unlikely to interfere in the organization’s criminal activities. Then it became associated with the “picciotti,” who were young men in the lowest ranks of the mafia hierarchy.
Even since its earliest days, the flat cap has evolved in usage and meaning. In the beginning in England, it denoted different socio-economic levels: Black was worn by the working class, brown was for farmers and field works, and blue was used by sailors. It became a driving hat and a newsboy hat. And later in the twentieth century, it was linked to rich people’s sports like hunting and golf, and even to musical genres such as jazz.
By the 1990s, Italian and other designers begin to take inspiration from the past, but instead of making dull-colored tweed cuppola caps, they designed brightly colored ones in many different fabrics, including cotton and linen and even in denim made from recycled jeans. In Sicily, a “Mafia awareness” movement supported the creation of attractive caps, which were intended to debunk the traditional stereotype of the rustic Sicilian Mafioso. While the older generation of Sicilians still wear the traditional caps, the brightly colored coppola is probably the wave of the future.