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Malcolm McLaren in the Buffalo hat on the cover of Smash HitsVia

The secret history of the Pharrell hat

Controversial? Please – Malcolm McLaren used to wear three at a time while getting chased out of town

Pharrell Williams is performing tomorrow on Saturday Night Live, and there is a 98.9% chance he will be wearing his Pharrell hat. Scratch that, it’s almost for definite – it feels like the thing hasn't left his head since January. It even has its own parody Twitter account, like Angelina Jolie's leg.  

Since Williams donned the headgear at the Grammys, the hat has been described being a ridiculous and/or inspired cross between Smokey the Bear and the logo for Arby's, the American sandwich chain. In fact, the Pharrell hat has a long and storied history in hip-hop and fashion – it leads us to the man who not only brought us punk but also Duck Rock, the first album to combine hip-hop, world music and scratching to intoxicating effect: Malcolm McLaren. 

True to his life-long obsession of “the look of music and the sound of fashion”, McLaren designed the look to go with the sound of Duck Rock. Working with his then partner, Vivienne Westwood, McLaren designed collections including Buffalo and Hobo-Punkature, which were sold at their shops, World’s End and Nostalgia of Mud. 

The hat in particular was cooked up by McLaren during his travels in Africa and the Americas for Duck Rock – a journey that led him to Peru, where he was inspired by the local women who often wore outsized bowler hats and full skirts. In McLaren and Westwood’s Buffalo Girls collection, that reference translated into earthy colours, felted wool, raw cut sheepskin, and baggy layers – basically the least hip-hop thing you could imagine, especially when placed against 80s hip-hop style, best epitomised by Harlem tailor Dapper Dan's exuberant logo-tastic creations.

But McLaren smelled crossover appeal. In America, he’d fallen in love with hip-hop when he stumbled upon a block party organised by Afrika Bambaataa and Universal Zulu Nation while searching for a Bow Wow Wow support act. The first single off Duck Rock, "Buffalo Gals", is a hip-hop rejig of a 19th century American folk song originally called "Lubly Fan"– and marks the introduction of the Buffalo Hat into music history.

McLaren worked with the Bronx's Rock Steady Crew to create the visuals for the music video, which introduced the Buffalo hat to hip-hop for the first time. McLaren didn't just promote the hat in the music video for his single – it also features prominently in Duck Rock, a one-hour film he made to accompany the 1983 album of the same name. In fact, McLaren – much like Pharrell – pretty much wore the hat constantly, donning it for his VH1 performance  of the single. 

Bob Gruen, the legendary music photographer behind iconic shots like this one of Bob Dylan in his New York City tank top, remembers first seeing McLaren in the Buffalo hat on a preliminary shoot for Duck Rock in the Appalachian Mountains, Tennessee. 

"'Buffalo Gals' featured some square-dance music, so he wanted authentic mountain people to do the dance," Gruen explains. "That was the first day I saw him in the hat. It made sense, in a rumpled hillbilly way." 

In fact, McLaren had turned up in hillbilly country wearing three of his hats, for added effect. A few hours into the shoot, he turned to Gruen and said, "Bob, get in the car, we've gotta leave quick." At the time, Gruen was deep in negotiations with some Appalachian residents to sell him their moonshine whiskey (you know, the bootleg hooch that makes people go blind). 

McLaren was trying to cast some local kids for the shoot and as it turns out, god-fearing Appalachian villagers who brew their own moonshine don't take too kindly to an out-of-towner trying to make them dance on camera. 

"They thought we were trying to exploit their kids," Gruen says. "Some big city guy comes up to the Ozarks and wants them to dance like hillbillies and open up their shirts and look sexy? They really resented that." The camera crew, Gruen and McLaren wearing his three hats beat a hasty retreat. 

Westwood continue to make the hat after she and McLaren broke up, but for decades, the Buffalo hat lay dormant – until a few years ago, when Pharrell picked up a new copy at the World's End store for £95. He debuted it in 2009 at a Bathing Ape launch in London, but it was only at the Grammys that people sat up and took notice. Maybe it was the inspired pairing of the hat with the red Adidas Original tracksuit, a classic nod to the early hip-hop style of "Buffalo Gals". 

"I was like, 'Oh my god, that guy's dragged up Malcolm's hat'," says Gruen. "I immediately recognised it. He isn't wearing three at once, though. Oh yeah, Malcolm liked to draw attention to himself: he just did things in a way that was different."

Three hats at once? Game on, Pharrell.