Top Hat Maker to the Stars . . . and to the Less Stellar
Individuals who have been so fortunate as to travel to international dressage competition cannot have forgotten their first glimpse of this gentleman as we strolled amongst the vendors scattered around the show grounds. His face appears stern, yet friendly. Unlike the majority of his counterparts tending their stalls he is not decked out in finery but sports a well-worn apron over a workingman’s garb. In place of the much-worshipped cash box or credit card machine visible in other stands, this artisan’s hands shuttle from tool to tool, including some implements that make you wonder if they are misplaced from a dungeon of the Inquisition. Photo Credit: Ruth McCormack
Except for an occasional pause in his labors to look up and answer a potential customer’s question, this fellow – who could be mistaken for a noble gnome or hobbit (except that he is considerably taller and not nearly so scary in his visage) – remains intent upon the work before him.
While I am certain that my description does him nowhere near the due he deserves, my words bring to the mind of countless riders of international fame the name of Boy de Winter. Beyond our relatively small community of those dedicated to the art of dressage, Meneer (the Dutch word for “Mister”) de Winter is perhaps best known as hat maker to the Dutch royal family. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands is as likely as not to be seen beaming from beneath the brim of one of Boy’s carefully crafted chapeaus when she addresses the Dutch Parliament. Her royal highness has this in common with nearly every dressage rider who has graced an Olympic medal stand in recent decades.
Confession (so they say) is good for the soul. Here is my confession: In all the years I have strolled past Meneer de Winter’s temporary work shops at so many dressage shows I have never been brave enough to ask this gentleman the meaning of his given name, “Boy.” Someplace deep inside the dark side of my soul I have wondered if – as in US hospitals when a child’s parents are not ready to settle upon a name for their offspring – the hospital’s or midwives’ records department issues a birth certificate bearing the name “Boy/Girl Smith,” might this craftsman have fallen prey to a cruel bureaucrat’s judgment that the family had not submitted the name by which they wished their child to be registered and, thus, he was stuck with the generic, “Boy”?
Don’t ask me why. Perhaps I was feeling particularly feisty in the brisk autumnal air that wafted about during this year’s Dressage at Devon. For some reason known only to God, as I strolled past the shop where this righteous elf plied his trade, I paused and asked him, “How did you come to be named “Boy”?
“I was born in the city of Nijmegen. Does that name mean anything to you?” Well, I make no claims to being a scholar when it comes to political history, but my feeble mind did dredge up one factoid, “Wasn’t it,” I asked, “a vital city during the closing days of the Second World War?”
“Yes, you are correct,” replied the now gracious shopkeeper. “I was born in 1948, after the war was already over. Still, there were lots of US soldiers stationed in and around Nijmegen. My parents were always friendly to the allied soldiers and the friendship was reciprocated. When my father reported to the G.I.s that our family was blessed with a son the soldiers replied, ‘It’s a boy!’ The name stuck.”
Photo: Steffen Peters Greets the crowd tipping his l'Hiver Hat
Perhaps one of our readers who has a World Cup victory to his/her credit or who has had an Olympic medal dangle about his neck will be braver than I and, when you pass the stall where this gentleman plies his trade, will shout out, ”It’s a boy!” I look forward to hearing the conversation that ensues.