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Women's Hats Through the Ages

Catherine earned her Bachelor's Degree in art and has always found it fascinating how good design evolves from basic function.

A portrait of Martha Washington in the mob cap she wore in her home.

A portrait of Martha Washington in the mob cap she wore in her home.

Fashion Follows Function

Ladies' hats have moved in and out of fashion throughout history, except among the wealthiest women who commonly accessorize with them. There was a time when ladies of all ages wore caps in public and at home.

Mob Caps

In the middle to late 18th century in England during the Georgian Period, married women wore head coverings called mob caps. These cloth coverings were made from linen, fit closely to the face, tied with a bow, and were open in the back to make room for pinned-up hair. They protected tresses from grime and were more convenient to wash than the hair itself. Worn only indoors, they were covered by structured bonnets when women went out in public.

In colonial America, mob caps were worn by all women, but the aristocratic versions were sometimes pleated and included bows. By the 19th century, mob caps were mainly worn by servants and the working classes. During the French Revolution, the poorer class women were often seen rioting in the streets in these fittingly-named "mob" caps.

The simple gathered versions of this cap are still routinely worn in food service, factories, and hospitals by both men and women. Cloth and plastic versions are worn to protect hair during sleep and to keep it dry when showering.

Marie Antoinette showing off her poufy style.

Marie Antoinette showing off her poufy style.

A hair receiver was common on a lady's dressing table.

A hair receiver was common on a lady's dressing table.

Head Dressing Reflects Social Status

Visualize the spectacular hairstyles of Marie Antoinette and the plumed hats that sat on top of her poufy, powdered hair. The toilette was the process of wardrobe, make-up, and head-dressing in the French court. It was an event witnessed by a privileged audience. Hair was oiled, powdered, and perfumed to provide support for plumed and bejeweled hats, as well as those holding a tableau of decorative objects.

This style was adopted and refined by the English in the 19th century when hair was built up upon a framework. Hats were securely pinned to the support but gave the illusion of floating. Shed hair was removed from brush or comb and saved in a hair receiver to be used later. "Rats," used to provide volume to hairstyles, were often potato-sized and made from fine net material stuffed with hair, then sewn closed.

In Edwardian times, the wide brimmed hats of  the Merry Widow look worked with the pompadour hairstyles and balanced the fuller skirts. The lighter color linen hats of summer were indicative  of upper class society.

In Edwardian times, the wide brimmed hats of the Merry Widow look worked with the pompadour hairstyles and balanced the fuller skirts. The lighter color linen hats of summer were indicative of upper class society.


In the late 19th century, Art Nouveau influenced the hats of the Edwardian era with wider brims that balanced both the fuller pompadour hairstyles and the flowing skirts. Hats were decorated with floral accents, rosettes and tulle. The effect was diaphanous and "frothy." This style evolved into the Merry Widow look of the wide-brimmed black, plumed hat with a chiffon over-wrap. We can see fine examples of the Edwardian styles in the movie, Titanic.

Another twist to the Edwardian style was the lingerie hat. This lightweight muslin or linen hat was usually white, beige, or ivory and was worn in the heat of summer. It was considered a sign of wealth because these light colors suggested the use of maids for frequent laundering, a luxury of the upper class. These hats were adorned with large flowers like cabbage roses, daisies, and poppies as well as bird nests, birds, and ribbon streamers. They were frequently worn to garden parties and summer weddings.

Turbans, toques, and cloches were better suited for shorter hair, slim lines, and  the high collars and wraps of the 1920s.

Turbans, toques, and cloches were better suited for shorter hair, slim lines, and the high collars and wraps of the 1920s.

1910 and 1920

In the 1910s and 1920s as the hairstyles became shorter, hats sat closer to the head. Turbans and cloches were popular and often accentuated with feathers and jewels. The curved plumes from pheasants and other birds were called "Mephisto" feathers and were commonly used on the toque hats of the art-deco period. These hats took on taller profiles to compliment the high-collared fashions of 1915.

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World War I Through the Depression

During World War I, military styles influenced millinery designs, and black veils were added for feminine appeal. Although these hats started out as mourning attire, this close-sitting, black-netted hat design lasted for 25 years. During war time, when large wedding ceremonies were impractical or too expensive, many women opted for a tailored suit or modest dress with a nice hat instead of a bridal gown. Hats were worn along with gloves whenever women went out to socialize or to attend church. This was true for those of the Depression Era and the young affluent until the mid-1960s.

Hats of the '40s and '50s were inspired by military designs and often veiled.

Hats of the '40s and '50s were inspired by military designs and often veiled.

The Millinery of the 1940s and 1950s

During World War II, supplies were diverted to the war effort, and most families had to simplify and go without all but the basics. This was also true for apparel which reflected the necessary office or factory work.

Once the war ended, women's clothing not only made a comeback, it was a renaissance for stylish fashion designs. Girdles and silk stockings were available again, and with them came cinched waists dresses, Eisenhower jackets, belted suits, sportswear, evening gowns, wraps, and lovely accessories of all kinds including a large selection of ladies hats. Women clamored to copy the look of actress Grace Kelly or fashion model Suzy Parker.

The 1960s and 1970s

The ever popular pillbox hat was favored by Jackie Kennedy, and she had them personally designed for her by Halston. This made them all the rage among the conservative set, and all major department stores rushed to keep them in stock. The wider brimmed floppy hats were a key component of the hippie look and worn by younger celebrities and those who embraced the counterculture. Made of felt, woven straw or leather, these were popular items for sale at craft fairs and trendy boutiques. Millinery designers continued to streamline the look into a tighter pleated brim for a tulip style or a softer version of the gaucho hat, but the floppy hat is still popular today.

Jackie Kennedy in a Halston-designed pillbox hat.

Jackie Kennedy in a Halston-designed pillbox hat.

By 1970, fashionable hats were being showcased by mini-skirted "stewardesses" all over the world. They were perfectly suited for the new hip and stylized uniforms. The standard military flight caps and 1950s pillbox hats were being redesigned into eye-catching styles: early fascinators, modern cloches, and oversized baker-boy and newsboy caps.

Airlines raised the bar for fashionable hats in the workplace.

Airlines raised the bar for fashionable hats in the workplace.

By 1980, however, hats fell out of style for fashion wear in the United States unless they were needed for special events like teas, garden parties, the Kentucky Derby, and Easter. For casual or functional wear, women chose cowboy hats, brightly colored baseball caps, and bucket hats.

The Popularity of Hats in Great Britain

In Britain, hats have never lapsed in popularity due to Queen Elizabeth's fondness for them. She is rarely seen without one. Hats are worn at christenings, garden parties, weddings, and funerals. The main event for hat wearers is the Royal Ascot Derby. Ladies' Day at this event is considered to be the "Oscars for original hat design." Wacky hats are prominently on display each June.

Hats on display at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Hats on display at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Hats Make a Comeback

All of the elements from the various eras of fashion have re-emerged today and are seen in the collections of top millinery designers like Phillip Treacy, Siggi, Rachel Trevor Morgan, and Judy Bentinck. Smaller sculptural hats called "fascinators" have become popular substitutes for wedding veils and less cumbersome alternatives to the traditional wide-brimmed hats.

Hats of every type were on display at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Although some were tasteful and some awful, they provided viewers with plenty of entertainment.



A Unique Accent Piece for Individual Expression

Hats are indeed fascinating, and they are coming back into the limelight once again. Wearing a hat is a great way to express creativity and to put an elegant touch to an outfit or hairstyle. Hats also protect the face from sun damage. There are many designs to choose from in all price ranges. The latest trends make the fashion pages each year as top milliners show them off on the catwalks. Many are modern adaptations of the classics.

A hat can be a simple functional piece or a one-of-a-kind statement. A nicely woven, wide brimmed straw hat can be found for $30.00 and will certainly do duty beyond the garden. Call on your imagination and add some pretty accents. A hat can be as changeable as a woman's moods and always adds style and mystery, especially when worn with a pair of sunglasses!

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.

© 2011 Catherine Tally


Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on June 26, 2020:

Hi Susan. Veils and face covering originated with the church. A veil or mantilla is still only worn for that purpose. Tulle and coarser netting, however, eventually made their way as ornamentation on millinery for dress up occasions. Today, netting on hats can be worn for teas, garden parties, and dress-up ladies luncheons as well as cocktail parties and wedding events. They add a bit mystery when partially covering the face or eyes. The smaller fascinator is the most charming hat w/ netting, but today we see it attached to many styles including bowlers and berets. Check out millinery trends for 2021.

susan mandeville on June 25, 2020:

I am curious about hats with veils for everyday wear (not just weddings) My mother had one, I believe. Do you know the history of "modern-day" veils?

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 24, 2018:

Thanks, Kathi. Apparently around 1660 a mob referred to an untidy mass of hair or the loss ends when it was pinned up. I'm glad you enjoyed the various styles. I love hats for the cool styles but am no fan of "hat hair" which is always my end-result! :)

Kathi Mirto from Fennville on April 23, 2018:

Very interesting about the mob hat Catherine. Hats are cool, nobody in America wears them anymore, not the stylish ones anyway. I love the queens hats, glad the British women kept the stylish tradition!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 20, 2017:

Hi Audrey! I agree with you. I love the way hats started as utilitarian and then adapted for social status and fashion. Fascinators are little works of art and wouldn't crush hair styles, yet I'd choose a larger hat for myself. I love the one worn here by Lady Windsor. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

Audrey Howitt from California on April 01, 2017:

Hats really are fascinating! And I love the idea of a fascinator!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 24, 2015:

Indeed! Thank you poetryman for stopping by to read and comment:)

poetryman6969 on April 24, 2015:

British women do have a flair for this sort of thing.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on February 24, 2013:

Hi Express10,

Britain certainly leads the way w/ hats! I wear the occasional ballcap w/ a short ponytail or brimmed sun-hat in the garden because of skin damage. I hate flattened hat hair, so I would probably opt for pulling my hair back for an asymetrical style like Lady Windsor's if I had a royal wedding to attend! I love her hat! I'm glad you enjoyed the history and pictures and appreciate your stopping by to read and comment. Thank you!

Cat :)

H C Palting from East Coast on February 23, 2013:

I'm from the U.S. and have never seen hats quite like this until the wedding. Most of the ladies here (myself included) wear hats rarely, if ever. Good to look at I suppose but I would not be caught dead wearing any of those hats, particularly the ones that appear to rest on the forehead only. And yes, it does appear a few of them would make excellent nests for a variety of wildlife :) While I may wear something a bit more simple, I enjoyed reading this hub and looking at these pics.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 22, 2012:

Hats are delightful fashion sculpture! I agree that Lady Windsor's design is the best w/ the asymmetrical elliptical shape and the decoration to balance it all. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

Claudia Tello from Mexico on January 22, 2012:

I like this royalty hat tradition, it’s fun! My favorite one: Lady Windsor's.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 28, 2011:

writer20- Yes! Many of the hats were a bit over the top, but the parade of them kept me awake until the ceremony got underway. :>) Thank you for stopping by. I hope you visit me again soon.

Joyce Haragsim from Southern Nevada on May 28, 2011:

although I'm originally from the U.K. some of these hats look totally ridculous to me

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 14, 2011:


Thanks for your nice comment. :>)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 14, 2011:


I'm really glad that you enjoyed my hub. I agree that Victoria Beckham's hat was one of the nicest designs. The dress that she designed could have benefited from a nice bold pendant. Although it was plain, she still looked good!

nicolerkilpatrick on May 10, 2011:

Amazing hats, I love it.

almasi on May 09, 2011:

Thanks for a fabulous hat hub. I loved quite a number of them but I think Victoria's Beckham hat and outfit was close to a 10. Voted beautiful.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 04, 2011:

Thank you,todd. I'm really glad you enjoyed my hub. There were so many amazing hats on display at the wedding!

toddwertz on May 03, 2011:

This is fantastic. I love royal hats.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 30, 2011:

Thanks,Pop! I agree that it really added to the whole event, and I was having a laugh just imagining some large bird swooping down to nest in one of them!

breakfastpop on April 30, 2011:

I really enjoyed looking at all those fabulous hats. That was a great part of the wedding!

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