The History of Women's Hats Through the Ages
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.
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, were 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.
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 process of wardrobe, make-up, and head-dressing in the French court was an event witnessed by a privileged audience. Hair was oiled, powdered, and perfumed to provide support for plumed and bejewelled 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. "Ratts," used to provide volume to hairstyles, were often potato-sized and made from fine net material stuffed with hair, then sewn closed.
Hats Accentuate Fashion Trends
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.
In the 1910s and 1920s as the hairstyles became shorter, hats sat closer to the head. Turbans and cloches were popular—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.
During World War I, military styles influenced millinery designs. 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.
1960 Millinery Fashion Show
The wider brimmed, floppy hats soon followed in the late '60s and '70s and are associated with hippie or boho fashion. By 1980, fashionable hats fell out of style for mainstream wear in the U.S. unless they were needed for sun protection or special events like garden parties,the Kentucky Derby, and Easter.
Hats Become Wearable Art
Hats began as functional accessories and evolved into status symbols, often reflecting world events. As fashion accents, they took a backseat to the coats and gowns whose lines they enhanced. In the 1960s, when Andy Warhol was moving full speed ahead with the pop art influence in fashion, hats also became palettes for social commentary. This was most evident in Britain among the elite and at Royal Ascot, but the trends were also featured in Vogue and on the runways in Paris and Milan.
Today, hats as wearable art are still the rage in some circles. The annual Easter Parade on New York City's Fifth Avenue has become an ever-popular showcase for wacky creations and statement pieces as has the Kentucky Derby. Harlem milliner, Mr. Bunn, sums it up perfectly: "Buy the hat first, and the outfit to go with it is merely an accessory."
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 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 Fascinating and Stylish Accent Piece
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!