Women as far back as early history have worn hats or head coverings. Historically, hats have been a symbol of wealth, rank in society, or even of religious virtue. While much has changed since the Renaissance era, hats have almost always been a staple when it comes to women’s fashion. Adorning your look with a fabulous hat is still one of the easiest ways to make an ordinary outfit come alive. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to create an authentic vintage-inspired look or just want to add some old-fashioned elegance into your accessories - here is a brief history of women's hats and how they have changed throughout the centuries.
Hats In Early History
In Western societies, hats have long been worn by lower-class members of society purely for utilitarian reasons. With that said, decorative hats have also made their mark on society since nearly the dawn of recorded history. After all, there are even depictions of women in Ancient Egypt (like the regal Queen Cleopatra) wearing elaborate bejeweled headdresses made of precious metals.
Ladies hats were also very prominent during the Renaissance era. During this time period, overseas trade stimulated the economy in parts of Europe, making many members of society more prosperous than ever before. What followed was a time of marked excess and an appreciation for the finer things in life. It was during this time period that hats became widely accepted by the public as a fashionable accessory rather than just utilitarian item.
During the Middle Ages, this trend continued. Members of the Royal Family or upper-class citizens often paired their lavish gowns with beautifully embellished hats. Often made of materials such as velvet, taffeta, silk, felt, or animal hide, many portraits of women from the 16th
century depict them wearing show-stopping hats or head coverings.
Marie Antoinette’s Incredible Accessories
If there was one royal who loved showing off her hats and hair accessories, it was Marie Antoinette. During her reign as the Queen of France in the late 1700s, she was famous for her over-the-top hair dos and the elaborate accoutrement that accompanied them. She would often arrive at the royal court wearing her hair piled high on her head. Her breathtaking crown of curls was often accented by bejeweled hats, charms, and other imaginative items.
Marie Antoinette is famous for many things. Many people don’t know, however, that she is also credited for inventing the fascinator. A unique take on a woman’s hat, fascinators are small hair accessories that are accented by veils, feathers, ribbons, or other exciting items. When the French Queen stepped out wearing an elaborate array of ostrich feathers in her hair, many aristocratic French ladies soon followed suit, and the concept of the fascinator came to life. Society has greatly changed since the time of Marie Antoinette’s rule. Still, fabulous fascinators continue to be worn today at weddings and other formal royal functions.
Hats Become A Status Symbol
During the 18th
century, hats were often an indicator of one’s place within society. Only wealthy upper-class women had the money to afford wearing stylish hats when going out in public. Women in lower classes instead wore mob caps - unstructured hats made of linen that kept the hair clean and covered during daily chores. These hats were only worn indoors and were typically only worn by women who ranked lower in social status, such as servants, maids, or other working women. These mob caps became quite indicative of a woman’s place within society.
Hats During the Victorian Era
In the early 1800s, wide-brimmed bonnets were squarely in-fashion. During this century, bonnets eventually became large statement pieces with dramatic brims. While these hats were meant to shield a woman’s face from the sun, they also were fashionable items that a woman wouldn’t want to be seen in public without.
In summer months, straw bonnets were frequently worn by Victorian women of all social classes. These lightweight, breathable hats were often adorned by bountiful ribbons, feathers, flowers, and other ladylike decorations. In winter, women wore bonnets made of heavy fabrics such as wool or velvet. These served to keep them warm while also ensuring they aligned with popular fashion trends. For upscale outdoor social events, Victorian women adorned their look with bonnets made of luxurious silks or satins
As the 1800s progressed, parasols came into style, making the bonnet become smaller and smaller in size. Eventually, they transformed into Fanchon's - dainty hair coverings that sat at the crown of the head and tied under the chin. Traditional bonnets were still worn in the late 1800s as well, although they were traditionally considered “matronly” or “old-fashioned” as the century came to a close.
While women during the later parts of the 19th
century wore a variety of hats, none was more popular than the “Doll Hat.” Victorian Doll Hats were often tall, narrow, and adorned decorative accents like feathers or ribbons. These hats sat near the front of the head so as to accent - but never interfere with - elaborate up-dos that were popular among Victorian women.
While Doll Hats, Bonnets, and Fanchons were the most popular hats worn by women during the Victorian era, plenty other styles were worn as well. Although not as prevalent, the Tyrolean Hat is also worth mentioning. These structured hats of Germanic influence borrowed heavily from menswear styles that were popular at the time. This type of hat had a high crown, a diminutive brim, and was often adorned with ribbons, flowers, or feathers. It most closely resembles a modern-day fedora.
Ladies Hats During The 20thCentury
The Edwardian Era
During the Edwardian Era, women’s clothing became much more relaxed. Hats, however, were still very much in style. In 1907, popular English theatre actress Lily Elsie appeared on stage wearing a wide-brimmed hat adorned with layers of chiffon and plumes of feathers. Her play was a huge success, and soon women everywhere wanted to wear a wide-brimmed hat just like her.
Named “The Merry Widow” after the name of Lily Elsie’s play, these types of elaborate hats were popular throughout the Edwardian Era. Many were multicolored or adorned with flowers, feathers, and - in some cases - even taxidermy. At the peak of their popularity, Merry Widow hats reached an excessive 18” in width.
Fashionable flappers during the Roaring Twenties loved wearing accessories, and hats were no exception. The most popular hat during the 1920s was undoubtedly the Cloche hat. These bell-shaped head coverings had dainty brims and were sometimes adorned with just a small amount of embellishments or details. Cloche hats were perfectly suited to complement the cropped bob haircuts that were all the rage among fashionable women during the Jazz Age.
The Art Deco movement was heavily influenced by Ancient Egyptian fashion, so it makes sense that the Turban-style hat was also incredibly popular among women during the 1920s. Made from opulent fabrics like silk, satin, or velvet, these hats covered the entire head and usually featured some type of small jeweled embellishment. The turban-style hat was the only type of women’s hat that was an appropriate accessory for evening wear during this decade.
The 1940s & 1950s
During the middle of the 20th
century, hats were nowhere near as commonplace as they had been in previous decades. The Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II made frivolous accessories a bit less important. With that said, women were still often seen wearing fancy hats during these decades - Especially when dressed up for a formal occasion or attending a special event.
Because they were worn purely for decoration, hats were notably smaller during these decades than they had been in the past. Fascinators or Curvettes were the most popular types of hats during these decades. These dainty hats were either mounted on a headband or were secured with hair pins. They were often adorned with floral accents, veils, or faux feathers to make them even more lavish in design.
During this time period, military-inspired hats also rose in popularity. The beret - which was borrowed from traditional military dress - became incredibly popular among World War II era women. The “Tam Hat” is a variation of the beret and was also in style during the 1940s. These hats were unstructured and often very flat. To make them even more exciting, women would often add glittering pins or brooches to the front of their berets.
Hats were becoming a bit less popular as the 20th
century wore on. With that said, 1960s style icon Jackie Kennedy managed to make hats popular again. During her husband’s presidential inauguration in 1961, Jackie Kennedy wore a statement-making wool coat by Oleg Cassini. She topped the look off with a crisp, contemporary domed hat by Halston. Pillbox hats would become the First Lady’s signature accessory, and women across the country were eager to copy her stylish accessory choices.