It’s not every day a woman’s fashion accessory gets to pull double duty as a weapon.
But according to advertisements in noted magazines such as Harpers Weekly, from the late 1890s to about 1920 that’s exactly how some manufacturers advertised their hatpins: Be stylish and safe, too!
The History of Hatpins
According to the American Hatpin Society, hatpins have been around since the 1400s, when women wore complex headdresses called wimples to cover and hold their hair in place. These were notably worn and used by the aristocracy, as the common lady had no need for such a complicated item of clothing. Pins were used to hold the wimples in place. By the early 1800s, pins of all kinds were in demand, not just for wimples, which had gone out of fashion, but other accessories such as belts and scarves. This need for pins created a cottage industry that provided a livelihood for entire families.
As the demand for pins rose, the need for them was met by importing pins from France, a country still famous to this day for fashion.
Though large hats were in vogue during the mid-Victorian era, 1845-1865, ribbons, not pins, were used to secure the hat. Big hats were especially in style during the 1890s, most notably by the Gibson Girl. Celebrities of the time, such as Lillian Russell and Lily Langtree wore hats decorated with feather plumes, held in place by hatpins. And proving things never really change, women of the time mimicked the fashion trends of the rich and famous actresses and demanded the same for themselves.
This era also coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class. Young women were working outside the traditional home, most notably in shops as sales clerks. These ladies often rode public transportation such as trolley cars.
If a woman had to defend herself from unwanted advances, such as groping from a nearby passenger, the lady’s hatpin provided her with an immediate defense to ward off this undesired attention. A quick jab usually did the job!
Hatpins got longer in direct correlation to the style and size of hats. Some hatpins reached a length of 13 inches, causing trolley car and train passengers much angst. Sharing public transportation with these working girls could prove hazardous to one’s health as passengers often had to dodge the pin to prevent bodily injury. Many an eye was poked and shoulder stabbed by these feminine adornments. Because there were so many offenses, laws were enacted requiring women to shorten their pins’ length.
According to the American Hatpin Society, between 1908-1909, judges in England, Arkansas, and Illinois were limiting the legal length of hatpins to 9 inches. Those who refused were required to get a permit to possess a deadly weapon. Thus, shorter pins required smaller hats.
The Victorians were status-conscious about everything to do with daily living and most especially about clothing and accessories, including hatpins. The fancier the pin, the wealthier and higher the social status of the owner. These potential weapons were made from basic metal alloys such as brass to silver and even gold. The end or top of the pin usually had a decorative piece, sometimes a faux stone, other times an item of significance to the wearer.
According to Andra Behrendt, a dealer and avid collector of hatpins and owner of the website Lady-A.com, “the most desirable and valuable hatpins are figural, such as a butterfly or some other type of bug.” Odd-shaped faux or authentic gems, especially a larger one surrounded by smaller samples, also attract collectors.
Behrendt explains that certain colors also attract extra attention. Purple was a common color because it could be used by all women, including widows. Shades of purple were considered a mourning color. “Most collectors want pretty displays,” Behrendt states, and some collectors will only buy specific colors, figures or themes.
Hatpins were made in just about every color and motif. Love dogs? Hatpins with a dog’s head at the top are out there. Prefer the color black? Hatpins made of jet with a carved design also exist. Created from just about any material that could pierce a hat, hatpins can be found in celluloid, ivory, gold, silver, jet or even wood.
When asked about dating and authenticating hatpins, Behrendt explains, “it’s almost impossible to date 1890 versus the early 1920s.” What she does do is turn the piece over and see how it’s been made. Whenever something doesn’t look quite right, it probably isn’t. She claims there are a lot of reproductions flooding the market. And the internet has been a blessing, educating collectors with photographs of what to look out for and who may be selling the copies.
Oddly, the most expensive hatpins are not necessarily the ones made from gold or silver. Behrendt is drawn to oddities, such as a hatpin that holds a compact at the top or one that does double duty as a needle holder. There are also hatpins with tops that swivel, allowing the ornament to tremble and bounce as the wearer walks and moves around.
Behrendt enjoys versatile pieces that can be either a hatpin or a brooch. These types of hatpins are rarer, sometimes one-of-a-kind and are usually made of a base metal such as brass. They command the higher prices, however, anywhere from $700 to as much as $2,000.
When Behrendt was asked what she personally collects, she laughed. “I collect sterling hatpins with ladies on them, just because of my website and business name, Lady-A.”
Cindy Kolodziejski of Kirsten’s Corner on RubyLane.com, says her best-selling hatpins have unusual and rare themes, echoing much of what Behrendt states. Cindy finds her hottest selling hatpins are animal-related, especially snakes and lions. Another popular theme is anything in shades of blue or green. Hatpins decorated with agates are also in high demand.
When asked how to begin a collection, Cindy said she believes in collecting things that catch the imagination and whenever possible, go for the unusual item. She also thinks displaying the collection, and having an oddity as the centerpiece, is a great way to start a conversation. One of her favorite hatpins was made of brass in the shape of a winged dragon with the dragon holding a pearl in his claws. She sold this one for $200. The most expensive hatpin she’s ever sold was from the Edwardian era, made of white gold and enhanced with a diamond-shaped synthetic blue sapphire. This went home with a collector for $750.
A recurring theme with pricing and valuing hatpins is the use of the internet, especially checking to see how much other online sales had fetched for a similar hatpin.
Another dealer, Chelsea Jepson, of Chelsea’s Antiques has been on Ruby Lane for about 10 years. She believes the serious collector, hatpin or otherwise, usually purchases items online versus at an antiques show. Though she sets up at antiques shows and flea markets, most items sold at these are more spur-of-the-moment purchases versus pieces for a collection. As far as how she authenticates and prices them, Chelsea grew up in the business and “goes with my gut” when evaluating an item.
Hatpins and Women's Suffrage
The correlation between women’s fashion and Women’s Suffrage cannot be ignored. When the Suffragette Movement took hold in the early 1900s, women no longer dressed in extravagant trappings such as hoop skirts or bustles. Hats became simpler, even reverting back to using ribbons instead of hatpins to keep them in place.
Suffragettes were schooled and organized by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), then considered a subversive type of organization. The members were instructed to maintain normal standards of behavior and especially dress. By blending in, or hiding in full view, they were perceived as “normal” and not radical, men-haters. The newspaper Votes for Women, wrote, “The suffragette of today must be dainty and precise in her dress.”
Colors were used to identify fellow members and sympathizers. These were chosen by Mrs. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence who was not only the editor of Votes for Women but the business manager of the WSPU. Purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope were worn as a “duty and privilege.”
The first meeting of the WSPU took place in Hyde Park, London on June 21, 1908, and was attended by 300,000 women, according to the London Times. These colors were worn by every attendee in some way, either with just a few ribbons pinned to a dress to an entire ensemble. Many were attired in white frilly dresses with collars up to their necks with long sleeves, while the belts, scarves and ribbons depicted the Movement’s colors.
Coinciding with the Suffragette Movement was the “New Woman,” concept, a fashionable female in a long skirt and jacket, an early version of a business suit.
A woman of her times, independent and wanting more than marriage and family, this “New Woman” represented a polished, savvy college graduate. One of the Suffragettes' most outspoken members, Christabel Pankhurst, was a perfect example of this “New Woman.” A law school graduate, she was denied the right to practice law due to her gender. Pankhurst, along with others, often marched in their academic graduation robes.
Smart retailers jumped on the bandwagon, catering to the Suffragettes’ color choices and another moniker of the emancipated woman, red lipstick! Selfridges, a department store in London, was the first to carry red lipstick, rouge and powder. Back in the United States, that famous icon of makeup, Elizabeth Arden, once ran from her office to hand out tubes of red lipstick to marching Suffragettes in New York City.
By 1914, with the breakout of World War I, fancy hats seemed frivolous in such a sorrowful time. The metals used for hatpins were now needed to make war implements. The hatpin’s popularity waned. Sedate, tailored dresses and smaller, cloche hats were now the norm.
Perhaps with the passing of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote here in the United States, the final death knell of the hatpin was struck. Hats were smaller, dresses were shorter, women were working in more non-traditional roles, and the big floppy hat with the plume no longer fit in with the times.
The Roaring Twenties erupted with a vengeance. Women were smoking cigarettes! And wearing not just red lipstick but heavy rouge and eye makeup! And showing not just their ankles but their knees! What was the world coming to?
The world was changing fast and fashions of the day with them. Large hats requiring hatpins would never come back in style. But because they were made in an abundance of common materials, they are still relatively easy to collect and affordable. In other words, there’s a hatpin for just about anyone.