Vintage Pillbox Hats and the Women Who Made Them Fashionable
Post-War Fashion History
In 1950, America was just getting used to post-war prosperity. The war was won and the boys were home, and America's factories were churning out cars and washing machines instead of guns and airplanes. Rosie the Riveter was back home baking cookies and having babies. There was a longing for peace, stability, and family, and this was reflected in contemporary fashions.
Dior had unfurled his "New Look" in Paris a few years before in 1947. This was a lush, feminine fashion statement of long skirts, high heels, and wasp waists that took post-war Europe and America by storm. Its wide-brimmed picture hats, long full skirts, and stiletto heels lasted until January of 1961, when a young, fashionable first lady in the White House imposed her own fashion signature on America and the whole world.
Enter the Pillbox Hat
1961 was the year of the pillbox hat, and Jackie Kennedy was the woman who made it famous. She was wearing a pillbox on the cold January day her husband took the Presidential oath of office, and she was wearing one in Dallas on the day he was assassinated. The pillbox was her signature, and through her, it became the iconic fashion accessory of the sixties and beyond.
Celebrities and movie stars like Audrey Hepburn followed the Kennedy lead. Hepburn was a big fan of the pillbox. Below is a shot of her from the film Charade, but she sported the pillbox look often—not just in films, but in her personal life as well. Her pillbox look was jaunty and sometimes included a veil.
The Return of the Pillbox With the Millennials
In general, hats went out of style somewhere around 1970 when fashion did an about-face. Between London's "Mod" look (think Mary Quant and the Beatles) and the Woodstock generation (think calico dresses, combat boots, and peace symbols) hats were a definite no-no for both men and women.
The young and forward-thinking went bareheaded. Hats were considered "old hat," and only conservative old men and frumpy grannies wore them. Old men tipped their hats to old ladies who were not only wearing hats, but also gloves. In fact, hats and gloves became the mark of the old and stodgy and so it was for the next three decades until the Millennials, aka Generation Y decided that hats were hip and proceeded to make them their signature.
Vintage Fashion Comes Back in Style
The kids started combing vintage clothing stores and avant-garde designers started creating—yes, folks—hats! Young fashionistas have brought new life to the old pillbox pairing it everything from junky jeans to retro formal attire and creating a whole new fashion forward look for it. Madonna and the Kardashians as well as the kids on the corner have embraced the Pillbox and made it their own. Hats are back and they are not your grandmother's pillbox—or maybe they are!
Today hats are everywhere—there are even blogs about hats, online shops that deal in nothing but hats, and high-end milliners who are making a comeback designing for such luminaries as Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga. These are only two of the many contemporary celebs who are helping to resuscitate the pillbox hat after forty years in the shadows.
How to Find a Pillbox
Where can you find an authentic vintage pillbox to top off your retro look? Try vintage clothing stores, flea markets, and yard sales. Much is available online. Check out eBay, and also try nosing around websites that specialize in vintage clothing and accessories. I'm a big fan of Etsy for this kind of thing, but there are a number of excellent sites that specialize in vintage hats and accessories.
Try googling "vintage pillbox hat" and see what comes up. You will be surprised at the number of choices. Of course, you can always buy a newly crafted, retro look hat from a number of designers, but that will probably cost you more and, for my money, is not nearly as much fun as finding and wearing a truly vintage piece.
I'd also suggest having a look in your mother's attic—chances are there is a pillbox hat up there somewhere. A great classic never goes out of style—and the pillbox hat is just that.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Roberta Kyle