While hats may not have the fashion status they once did, some of the classic examples from the past still enjoy some popularity today.
From the Easter bonnet to the regal top hat, they are admired and collected.
In decades past it was that special hat which invoked a certain feeling for the wearer. It caught the eye and the soul.
“A hat was part sculpture, part architecture, part trimming and part craftsmanship,” according to LaRee Johnson Bruton, author of the book Ladies Vintage Accessories. “It was wearable art. It was a bouquet worn on our heads. And always a hat expressed emotion, especially when the wearer felt an affinity to that particular style.”
In terms of traditional wear the man’s top hat has one of the longest histories. As early as the 1790s the top hat was considered fashionable in England. Such hats made of silk, beaver or rabbit were well established in America by the 1820s and remained a symbol of upper-class status well into the 20th century.
If the top hat was too formal, then the well-dressed male of the latter 19th century could choose the derby for most occasions. The dome-shaped hat, sometimes called a bowler, became popular in the 1870s. Its stiff felt rounded crown and curled brim, like the top hat, had strong British origins.
Basically the top hat and the derby became part of the dapper dress of American males during the last few decades of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. Meanwhile, working-class males generally wore soft caps that could be fitted in the pocket when not in use.
Women’s hats took a different transition in the 19th century, going from more formal to fancy dress.
By the 1870s women’s hats tended to be little more than small, pushed-forward bonnet-like affairs, which attached beneath the chin. In terms of style little had changed in the previous half-century.
However, there were some relatively dramatic changes during the final two decades of the 19th century regarding women’s hats. For one thing, the technology for mass production and consequent marketing (department stores and mail-order catalogs) made more elaborate hats available and desirable. Additionally the economy of that era managed to elevate more American females into the nation’s middle and upper-class strata. Thus, fashionable headwear became a significant statement about late 19th century prosperity.
Spring and summer women’s hats of the 1880s were especially breathtaking.
In 1886 the very trendy Bloomingdale’s Catalog from New York featured a striking array of hats for the ladies. No longer were they small and modest. Instead, they were boldly decorated with regal names to match. Choices included the Carman, Lilly, Capulo, Woodland, Julia and the Avenue. The Avenue came with “fine Milan straw” and was further enchanted with velvet, jet and colored crepe. The Carman came with colored lace, velvet ribbons and long showy plumes of exotic bird feathers.
Such elaborate hats for the ladies were not cheap. Some of Bloomingdale’s better selections cost anywhere from $5 to $7 at a time when the average worker’s annual wage was somewhere around $500.
Meanwhile, the best-dressed men of the 1880s were wearing bounder or derby hats with that single-breasted fly front overcoats and Prince Albert suits. Catalog and department stores offered top hats and even cloth caps as well but for the most part the stiff and durable derby prevailed.
By the late 1880s the less stiff fedora hat had surpassed nearly all others in men’s wear. The Montgomery Ward & Company catalog proclaimed, “For ease comfort and style the soft fedora hat leads all others. They are by far the most popular hats in the world today.” Men with diverse tastes could also order a wide-brimmed planter’s cowboy hat or a standard stiff fur derby-styled mode.
For women of that decade, the message was clear, just mail-order the hats of your dreams. The millinery department of Montgomery and Ward was eager to cater to its lady costumers.
One advertisement read: “We can furnish any style of trimmed or untrimmed hats in any desired quality or cost. We also carry in stock a full line of ribbons, fancy flowers, wreaths, sprays, ostrich tips, plumes, birds and jetted ornaments. A reasonable charge will be made for trimming from 15 cents to 50 cents. Any hat or bonnet made or trimmed to order cannot be returned or exchanged.”
One of the popular hats of this era was the Venice bonnet with its fancy braid, velvet facing, small velvet flowers and wide silk lace. Even in spring and summer the only color the Venice bonnet came in was basic black.
Fashion styles for women at the turn of the 20th century demanded larger and even more ornamental hats than before. The backward-thrusting bustle was over and the narrow-waisted, fuller-bosomed look was beginning.
The unwieldy women’s hats of the early 1900s complemented the top-heavy appearance and proclaimed the wearer’s wealth and gentility.
While the ostrich feather or plume was applied before the 20th century, it now became a central part of the most stylish hats for women.
Sears & Roebuck advertised “Real French Curl Plumes” in 1908, which were simply very elaborate ostrich feathers. They offered what the company proudly proclaimed was “A striking and harmonious combination of colors on a splendid hat.” There were dozens of illustrations in their catalogs “which were made from actual photographs of each hat.”
On the other hand, the mail order company declared flatly, “We do not make or sell freak styles.”
Men of the early 1900s meanwhile would eventually find alternatives to the derby and top hat in the homburg, which was named for a German resort. Typically the homburg was offered only in gray, black or dark blue. In later years it was available fairly widely in various colors. Another choice for men was the Panama white. The hat drew its name from the Panama Canal workers who favored it although it had its origins in other parts of Central America.
Grand hats of the previous decades were pretty much gone for well-dressed women in the 1920s. Large was replaced by small in hat styles for ladies. Close-fitting bell-shaped hats were now in vogue to accommodate shorter “boyish” hair styles. By the 1930s women were attracted to the high fashion of more curved lines in hats and glitzy selections which ranged from turbans and flowered hats to felt “change-about” hats that looked very much like a gentleman’s fedora.
The fedora for men had become the most popular and most versatile dress hat on the market in the 1930s. The felt fedora was changeable because the medium-width brim could be snapped up or down depending on personal taste. The fedora continued to appeal to the businessman for decades.
Women’s hats, meanwhile, took a turn toward even more artificial flowers and synthetic materials during the 1940s and 1950s. Still, they remained on the smaller side and without undue embellishment. In the 1950s the so-called pill box hats became fashionable, along with higher-crowned brimless hats. Overall, small and round remained the style of choice.
Historians point to the 1960s as the sunset of the great age of women’s hats. After that period, stylists put more emphasis on hairstyles themselves and less regard for the lady’s hat as a symbol of status.
Despite the persistent appearance of hats for formal occasions and despite Jacqueline Kennedy’s dignified and elegant pill boxes, hats were relegated to whimsy and novelty, losing their long-standing place at the head of fashion.
There have been many bizarre hat styles, but they are rarely well received. Many jokes have been made about extreme styles in hats. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a couplet about hats in his poem, “A Rhymed Lesson”:
But men and nature scorn the shocking hat.”