Ever wonder what a “mad hatter” could be? Or a plumassier? They are both components in the language of the hat. And, someone thought enough of chapeaus to put several varieties on postcards … often to poke fun at fashion.
For millenniums headpieces have indicated rank or status. From the first time a pelt was plopped on a pate, humans have hungered for the distinction provided by head coverings. Freedom caps, crowns, furs, feathers and fedoras have been treasured adornments.
In the last century or so, men have been somewhat conservative in choosing headgear. Pork pie caps, homburgs, boaters, skimmers and panamas, a fez or two, stovepipes, ten gallons, and the occasional buffalo horn, were very acceptable headgear….as was the traditional derby named for its inventor, William Bowler of England.
Women’s hats are an entirely different story….Conservative? By no means!
By the early 1900s ladies often sighed… “Oh for a Gainsborough,” and they were not referring to paintings by the artist of an earlier era. His portraits of women wearing elaborately plumed hats were the inspiration for creating huge chapeaus that often bore the name “a Gainsborough.” These hats could contain dozens of ostrich feathers and numerous smaller feathered embellishments in the brilliant colors of jewels. Bird plumes in great quantities became the forte of a lady’s milliner and the plumassier, who was a courted purveyor of exotic feathers. The desperate competition for plumage caused the extinction of many bird species throughout the world.
“That hat” as it was occasionally referred to, had several names besides a Gainsborough. Some called it a Marlborough, or a cartwheel. It began to be called a Merry Widow after a popular 1907 operetta The Merry Widow, featured actress Lily Elsie wearing the fashion.
The larger the hats became, the more lengthy the hat pins it took to secure and festoon the frothy creations. This generated businesses producing decorative and sturdy steel pins nearly a foot long. Ribbons, whole birds, bugs, and other sparkling creatures could be found peeking through the exuberant array of costly frills.
The following press articles seemed to consider the fabulous fashions placed on ladies heads of great concern.
“1908 – Merry Widow hat arrives! New Monstrosity of Female Adornment Startles Natives of this town!! Some kind of a great wide rimmed roof, referred to as a hat, appeared in this valley and all over the country. It must be one of the order of the Merry Widow. The species now prevalent in our town, called the ginger, is reputed to find roosting place for 23 ostrich feathers, shade for the damsel that wears it or protection for half a dozen ladies in case of rain. It throws dark shadows over the thoroughfares and almost necessitates the lighting of street lights. The appearance of these unbecoming objects called hats are causing much of a sensation and the regret of many men.”
“1910 – Mayor of village wants new ordinance regarding the dangers of the hatpin! If a local mayor has his way he will pass a law that will be the death of the long hatpin. Such an ornament struck him in the neck when he was traveling recently. Although most regard the monstrous pins as a joke the mayor considers them a deadly weapon. The mayor entertains great indignation against the object that caused his injury. Many feel that as long as the pin, or weapon, is not concealed, it is legal … and who ever heard of an ornament being hidden … even among the mass of feathers and fru-fru piled on hats. The mayor however wants a large fine imposed on miscreants sporting the hazard.”
The postcards for this article are from 1907-1910.
There really were mad hatters! The materials used to make hats were processed with poisonous preservatives. The chemicals were so toxic the fumes disastrously affected the brain of a hat maker … causing madness.