The History of the Hat
Hats and headgear provide protection from the elements, imply social status, or can identify the wearer's group affiliation or career. Even in today's hat-optional culture, we mentally place a crown on the head of a king or a beret on the head of an artist.
Until the late 20th century, hats or head coverings were an essential aspect of a man's wardrobe. From simple close-fitting caps (coifs) to elaborations of folds, decorations, and fine materials, hats declared a man's place in the world. In Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a man's occupation, religion, and status could be immediately understood by his hat. In some cases, the law mandated the wearing of certain head coverings. Hat styles changed as society and technology advanced.
Today, the wearing of hats in Western culture has fallen by the wayside. Where once every businessman wore a hat with his suit, this is no longer the case. We may see knit caps worn in winter or baseball caps in warmer weather. Hoods attached to sweat jackets appear in urban settings. The occasional Hamburg may show up on a man wearing an overcoat. Flat caps with peaks are a convenient and attractive style for older men.
But to wear a hat or not is a choice. In the past, however, hats played a much more important role in a man's wardrobe.
Evidence of hats in historic costume come to us through the written word and appearances in art such as wall paintings, on statues and figurines, and on clay vessels. Most evidence of headgear in the very ancient past is restricted to ceremonial, religious, royal, or military purposes. The more simple headgear of common people for everyday would not show up in statuary or art. Direct physical evidence is scanty due to the perishable nature of materials used in the making of simpler headgear. Materials like fur, leather, and linen would have deteriorated.
Evidence From Early Artwork
Cave paintings discovered in 1914, in the Les Trois cave at Ariege, France depict a human like figure wearing a headdress that features antlers. Dated to 14,000 BCE, archeologists believe the figure represents a shaman.
An Algerian cave painting at Tassili n' Ajjer shows men wearing turban like head coverings that have been dated between 6,000–10,000 years old.
Terra cotta found in the Indus Valley of today's Pakistan display seated figures wearing horned or branched head gear and have been dated between 2300–1750 BCE.
Egypt, Greece, and Rome
A wide variety of crowns are illustrated in the art of Ancient Egypt. Wall paintings include the depiction of common men, workers, and slaves. Ancient Egyptian men shaved their heads but wore wigs for special occasions. Commoners wore a linen square worn straight across the temples that fell into pleats around the ears.
Ancient Greeks wore wide brimmed petasos with a rounded crown. Garlands were often offered to guests who wore ivy and myrtle. The elite and the celebrated wore garlands of olive and laurel. The tradition of bestowing a garland as an honor continued on into the Roman era.
Byzantine Empire and Beyond
The phrygian cap appeared during the Byzantine Empire (330 CE to 1453 AD). This brimless hat featured a high padded peak that tilted forward. While the phrygian cap appeared in the Middle East, the style moved west into Europe and was worn into the Middle Ages.
As Christianity came to dominated Europe, clothing was influenced by the Church which demanded full body and head covering.
Medieval Headgear for Men
By the 10th century, men wore hoods or phrygian caps hats with small round brims and peaked crowns were worn by Jewish men. Ango-Norman commoners have been depicted wearing phrygian caps as well as simple domed hats with brims in straw or felt.
Medieval styles emphasized a tall, slim silhouette with simple lines. It was not until later that headgear for common men became more complicated. As travel increased after the Early Middle Ages, styles became less localized. Troubadours, the wandering musicians of the time, often wore more elaborate headgear in an attempt to gain attention. They often introduced new looks to far flung locales.
Hats and headgear were often piled one upon the other:
- The Goget was a hood attached to a neckpiece. (Goget also refers to the neck piece alone.)
- This could be worn over a coif which was a close fitting linen cap worn by both men and women.
- The chapeau a bec was a brimmed hat with the tip cocked into a beaked shape that pointed forward much like a phrygian cap. Young men of the 13th century wore a coif underneath.
By the 14th century, hoods developed longer, drooping points. The points grew in length and evolved into the liripipe, a hood like hat worn over the gorget. Young men flaunted long tubes at the crown which could be draped over the shoulder. A round stuffed band called a rondalet could be added.
Complicated arrangements of these styles created a turban like effect. Materials included leather, felt, fur, and velvet and were dyed lush colors. Where once a hood was a fairly simple headpiece, headgear now became more extravagant.
The becca was a long, flat band that hung over the right shoulder, draped over the chest and tucked into the belt. It secured a hat even if the hat was removed.
Men's Hats During the Renaissance
The tall slim figure popular during medieval times changed into a wider, stockier silhouette. In the 1500s flat, wide berets replaced the taller styles of the past. Bonetes were wide, flat hats with 6 or 8 sided brims. These hat could be worn set straight on top of the head or cocked at an angle.
Beavers were brimmed hats named for the fur used in production. Less expensive felt hats were trimmed with real fur. Upper class gentlemen displayed their status with decorative effects like swan feathers, plumes, and jeweled brooches.
The classic coif evolved into a caul which was a net snood worn under a hat. Young men sported hoods that featured sometimes floor length points. The hood extension could also be wound around the head like a turban.
Men in the growing mercantile class wore stuffed berets with rondalets. Older gents preferred high, flat birettas. The Elizabethans wore capotains, brimmed, high crowned hats embellished with gold or silver braiding, lace, and feathers. During the Elizabethan era, the government mandated hat wearing and head covering for men in order to support England's hat industry.
Men's Hats in the 1600s
A flamboyant, romantic ideal came to dominate men's styles during the 17th century. The cavalier emphasized this romantic icon that was illustrated in art of the era. Long, flowing hair was topped by hats with turned up brims decorated by ostrich plumes and gem stones. The style can best be imagined when recalling images of the Three Musketeers.
Mid century, an interest in Eastern styles crept into English men's fashions and saw men topped with turbans. The turbans could be quite large, often decorated with feathers and jewelry.
Long hair can be difficult to maintain. Wigs began to replace long, natural hair. Hair was then cut close to the head in order to accommodate wigs. The wigs were often heavy, featuring waves and curls. In the 1690s, powder was added to the wig.
By the end of the century, hat crowns grew smaller. Hat brims were cocked, turning up at the front, side, or rear. This style led to the next century's prevalent hear gear, the tricorne.
Men's Hats of the 18th Century
Men continued to wear powdered wigs well into the 1700s. The style conveyed a look of dignity and high status to its wearers. The wigs were cumbersome and expensive to purchase and maintain. Wigs featured hair that fell past the shoulders. Military men introduced the campaign wig for men following active life styles.
Wigs could be worn with sculpted sides or tied locks. Some wigs were chin length at the sides with long extensions of curls that tumbled down the back. Bog wigs ended in a roll behind the neck. Long wigs could be tied at the back with a ribbon into a neat queue.
The tricorne was the popular hat of the 1700s. Made of beaver, these hats featured turned up brims attached to the crown. The upturned brim could be at the front or the sides. The tricorne fell out of favor in the late 1700s replaced by the narrow brimmed high crowned hat which would evolve into the top hat of later years.
An interest in the ideals of liberty led fashion away from the flamboyance of the French court. Clothing styles became more simplified. But some young men rebelled against the simple styles by introducing the macaroni style of the 1770s. Their clothing became wildly dramatic if not silly with tiny hats perched on curly wigs.
By the end of the 1700s the French and American Revolutions ushered in a more egalitarian phase in clothing styles. Wigs fell out of favor. An English country look introduced a plain kind of dignity that persisted into the Victorian period.
Men's Hats of the 19th Century
The 19th century ushered in a classic new look for men that featured simple lines and elegantly cut suits. Flamboyance gave way to moral sobriety and the excess of status became a thing of the past. Egalitarianism was the new style, though class distinctions remained obvious by the cut of a man's clothing and the materials used in production.
Increased production of the Industrial Revolution offered more affordable garments, accessories, and headgear to the growing middle class.
The black silk topper of 1790s French design became the iconic emblem of conservative capitalism. With various tweaks including height and width of the crown, the top hat (shown at the top of this page) reigned supreme during the 1800s. Made of stiffened fabric, a top hat was then covered with a silk plush, then brushed until it was smooth and shining. Mercury used in the process sometimes poisoned hat makers, hence the phrase, "mad as a hatter."
The end of the century introduced a collapsible top hat which could be flattened then sprung back with a flick of the wrist.
The bowler or derby hat developed mid century became an instant classic and remains an icon of the English to this day. Edward Coke had the first example made to be used as protective gear. But John and William Bowler introduced the mass produced hat designed for young British men. The bowler was simple, practical, and tough.
Shellac stiffened felt created a sturdy look that man every man feel like a gentleman. The black bowler was taken up by workers, bookkeepers, and managers underscoring a social movement into the middle class. A garment created for the elite was sported by factory workers.
In the USA, the Stetson hat, crown of the cowboy, originated in Philadelphia. John Batterson Stetson created a hat to protect the head and face from heat and rain. He traveled the West, felting and making hats by campfires. The typical hat we associate with cowboy is based on the vaquero hat worn by men of Northern Mexico. Men of the American west also wore top hats and bowlers.
Men's Hats of the 20th Century
Men's fashions retained a classic simplicity well into the 20th century. The Edwardian era introduced a casual informality into western styles for men and women. Men's formal attire still included a top hat, but the stiff starched styles of the Victorian era disappeared as the century wore on.
Many hat styles of the early to mid 20th century had been introduced in the late 1800s.
The boater was a summer hat with a flat crown and round brim. Plaited straw was sewn in a spiral, stiffened, and blocked into a debonair yet informal look.
The Panama was another summer hat worn at the turn of the 20th century. Woven of fine straw, the soft, broad brimmed hat could be rolled into a tube for travel. Cheaper, fabric versions are still popular today.
The Homburg was a German version of the bowler with a slightly higher, dented crown.
The Trilby was a combination of a Hamburg and an Alpine type hat named after a character in George du Maurier's play, "Trilby," of 1884. The hat was made of soft felt with a narrow brim that was turned up in back and down in the front. Though originally a bohemian style, the hat became the iconic symbol of the American businessman and journalist well into midcentury when no suit was complete without one.
The American Fedora was a felt hat similar to a Trilby but with a broader brim. The Fedora is the hat of movie gangsters, often seen worn by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and was popular mid century.
The baseball cap, a peaked cloth cap, once worn by members and supporters of baseball teams became the most popular hat of the late 20th century. In the late 1980's it became a merchandising tool for sports teams, movies, and clothing brands. Wearing the cap backwards or sideways signified cool.
Men's Hats Today
We live in a mostly hatless society. Of course males still wear hats, but head gear is a choice not a necessary fixture of the male wardrobe. Today's looser societal structure and more casual clothing styles offer the opportunity to wear all hinds of hats and headgear. Men of certain religions were a traditional hat such as Amish married men who wear broad brimmed hats.
Today's men can still be seen in the occasional Trilby, Hamburg, Fedora, or Panama hat as well as in ethnic styles, baseball caps, and harkening back to the Early Middle Ages, hoods.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Dolores Monet
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on February 01, 2018:
Hi Peggy - in the past, a hat was an important part of a well dressed man's outfit. Hats and head coverings were de rigueur for hundreds of years for both men and women.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 31, 2018:
This was such an interesting article. I never gave thought to the fact of there being so many different kinds of hats. I well remember my grandfather wearing hats when he was dressed in business attire when I was a child.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 25, 2016:
Your comprehensive hub is the only source I've ever come across that details the types of hats through the ages and provides names, too. The name of the new site is a little strange. Hope you are enjoying good traffic.
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on April 06, 2016:
billybuc - thank you! Once I started on this I began to think that it was too broad of a topic, there are so many hats that I neglected!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 05, 2016:
About the only thing I know about men's clothing is spelled Wrangler or Levis....but I love history of any type, so thanks for a very interesting article.