by Julia Robinson
In early November 2012, Kempsey (NSW) racegoers and townsfolk will attempt to break the world record for the greatest number of people wearing Akubra hats. ‘We need at least 1,000 proud Akubra owners in the CBD on Race Day to make the world record official’, say the organisers. ‘And everyone in the local community is invited to take part.’
Akubra is a proprietary name for an iconic brand of Australian bush hat, now made in Kempsey. It is a shallow-crowned, wide-brimmed hat, extremely hard-wearing, and traditionally made of felted rabbit fur. Originally it was worn by people who lived and worked in rural Australia, such as bushmen, squatters, stockmen, station workers, and timber-getters. The word Akubra is 100 years old. A Sydney company registered the name as a trademark in 1912, and the first newspaper evidence for the term is an advertisement seven years later. From the first, national sentiment was invoked as a selling point:
‘Akubra’, Australia’s best HAT, made for Australians by Australians; support home industries; full stocks now showing in stone, steel, slate, drab, beavers, and black; ask for ‘Akubra’. (West Australian, 19 December, 1919)
In 2012 the Akubra brand is going strong, but the word is now also used generically of similar hats. Still worn by bush workers, Akubras can be seen as well on fashionable townies at play, as can other items of traditional Australian bush clothing such as moleskins and elastic-sides. It is no surprise that some politicians have been associated with the Akubra, perhaps most notably the former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer. However the wearing of a bush hat, although emblematic of bush values and the true-blue, dinky-di, down-to-earth bush character, is no guarantee of rural favour:
Six months after the Premier donned his Akubra hat to woo the goodwill of rural NSW, the bush is in revolt. (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October, 1995)
The origin of Akubra remains unknown. Although it is sometimes suggested it comes from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘head covering’, there is no evidence to prove this theory. The word has been recorded in Australian dictionaries for quite some time, but recently it achieved a new status beyond Australian shores. Last month the bible of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, included it in the dictionary for the first time. A hundred years on, Akubra has achieved lexical respectability.
Now for that world record.