Women's Hats Through the Ages

Updated on December 11, 2017
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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.

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: | Source

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-size and made from fine net material stuffed with hair, then sewn closed.

This vintage hair receiver was used to collect shed hair for making volumizing "ratts." They were a common component to a lady's vanity set.
This vintage hair receiver was used to collect shed hair for making volumizing "ratts." They were a common component to a lady's vanity set. | Source
Source

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 light weight 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. The wider brimmed, floppy hats soon followed in the late 60's 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.


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.
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. | Source

1940

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. | Source

Millinery of the 1950s

Millinery of the 1950s
Millinery of the 1950s | Source

1960 Millinery Fashion Show

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.

Colorful Feathers at Royal Ascot

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Hats Make A Comeback In Fashion Design

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.

Hats on Display at the Royal Wedding

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

The Fascinator

Hats Become Wearable Art

Hats began as functional accessories and evolved into status symbols, often reflecting world events. As fashion accents, they look 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 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."

Ladies Day at Ascot: The Oscars of Hat Design

Wacky hats from Ladies Day at Royal Ascot
Wacky hats from Ladies Day at Royal Ascot | Source

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!

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    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 7 months ago from Los Angeles

      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.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 8 months ago from California

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

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 2 years ago from Los Angeles

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

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

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

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      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 :)

    • Express10 profile image

      H C Palting 4 years ago from East Coast

      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.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 5 years ago from Los Angeles

      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 profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

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

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 6 years ago from Los Angeles

      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.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 6 years ago from Southern Nevada

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

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 6 years ago from Los Angeles

      Nicole,

      Thanks for your nice comment. :>)

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 6 years ago from Los Angeles

      almasi,

      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 profile image

      nicolerkilpatrick 6 years ago

      Amazing hats, I love it.

    • almasi profile image

      almasi 6 years ago

      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.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image
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      Catherine Tally 6 years ago from Los Angeles

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

    • toddwertz profile image

      toddwertz 6 years ago

      This is fantastic. I love royal hats.

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      Catherine Tally 6 years ago from Los Angeles

      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 profile image

      breakfastpop 6 years ago

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