Hats serve in a variety of ways: as protection from the elements, identify your occupation, serve as a status symbol, a must for ritual clothing, and of course serve as a fashion statement. Style and use of hats has changed over time. Fashionable hats more replaced the bonnet in the late 1800s. By the beginning of the twentieth century, hat styles began to change by the decade. The close fitting cloche hat of the 1920s covered short bobbed hair. During the turbulent 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood glamour influenced women’s hats when feathers, veils, and more masculine style hats became popular. Hats decreased and increased in size throughout the 1950s and 1960s until concern for maintaining the latest hairstyle became more important than wearing a hat.
Identity and Belonging:
A school baseball team. Muslim women at the grocery store. Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts at summer camp. What do these groups have in common? They all wear headgear, along with other clothing that indicates their collective identity. The emphasis is on the group, not the individual.
People with a common ancestry often wear distinctive hats that proclaims national identity, clan affiliation, political beliefs, or common cultural interests.
Protection for Work and Sport:
We take for granted that workers in heavy industry or dangerous jobs wear standard safety helmets. In fact protective headgear was confined to a few industries until recently, and become compulsory in those industries only around the 1950s. Likewise, head wear for hockey and football players, motorcyclists, and race car drivers was standardized only recently.
Religion and Ritual:
Head wear plays a prominent role in religion, social rituals and ceremonies: many people demonstrate their faith and relationship with God by covering their heads. The Sikh wears a turban, observant Jews a Yarmulke, and a nun a coif.
Rites of Passage:
During significant events in our lives, such as marriage or bereavement, we often participate in public rituals that require particular dress, especially headdress. Often these rites of passage have sacred as well as social significance. For example, the white bridal veil symbolize physical and spiritual purity.
- Although women of many different cultures have worn veils of some sort for centuries, the white wedding gown and veil tradition is barely a hundred years old.
Hats worn for public ceremonies is often spectacular. Military headdresses worn on ceremonial occasions impress onlookers, as well as foster regimental pride and allegiance. Indeed, all manner of “pomp and circumstance” requires its particular head wear: civic parade, powwow, royal visits, changing of ceremonial guards…
Authority and Status:
Hats convey power. Hats such as a tall black top hat represent prestige and social standing. Some such as an army helmet proclaim military might, others identify professional authority such as a police hat or nurses’ cap.
- Originally nurses wore practical, white, pleated cap and apron of the maidservant – signifying respectability, cleanliness and servitude. As the nursing profession gained recognition, nurse’ caps became less utilitarian and more symbolic, a badge of office and achievement. Since the Second World War, the cap has lost much of its significance and has virtually disappeared.
Fashion Hats, 1890-1920:
By the 1890s, the bonnet was declining in popularity and the jaunty hat, perched on top of the head, was considered more suitable for the “new girl” of the period, for whom tennis and bicycling, working in an office and participating in higher education were now acceptable pursuits.
Women of the 1920s adopted a boyishly tubular silhouette and covered their cropped hair with a close-fitting cloche hat in symbolic rejection of the previous image of femininity. The chic cloche proved to be an ideal design for mass production; with a few snips, tucks and stitches by a skilled milliner, the hat was ready to wear.
The 1930s offered a dizzying parade of imaginative hat styles, including some fanciful and surreal shapes. Hollywood had an influence on increased glamour and drama in design and lent themselves to the cult of personality, centering on film stars such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Humphrey Bogart.
During the war years the trend towards variety and ingenuity continued as an antidote to the anxieties and rationing of wartime. Dramatic feather trimmings were revived and the veil reappeared. Women’s hats often borrowed masculine hat styles, such as the fedora, which complemented the padded-shouldered, tailored suites. These masculine styles, when combined with feminine trimmings such as feathers and veal, and worn at a coquettish, forward-slanting angle, gave a new meaning to the feminine image.
After the war, hats became part of the New Look launched by Christian Dior. Headwear was either very small or very large, hairstyles were neat, and close to the head and make-up included mascara-ringed eyes. But the hat was in decline by the late 1950s. Reduced to whimsy and novelty, it began to lose its outstanding place at the head of fashion.
By the 1960s, the hat represented attitudes to femininity that seemed outdated. The youth movement jettisoned hats along with gloves, stockings, and bras. What was new and exciting was hair, teased into bouffant and beehives, and professional hairdressers took over from milliners as the creators of headdress.
Under the Veil:
The veil is the only head covering virtually exclusive to women. It has been worn since ancient times and is still worn by women who follow a religion that requires the hair, and sometimes the fact to be covered in public. Many Islamic women wear the Hijab as part of a dress code prescribed in the Koran. The Hijab denotes both female modesty and reserve, and female dignity and respect.
The Cloche hat, so simple and modern, nevertheless blinkered its wearer no less than the poke-bonnets of the 1800s. It dictated a stance that became characteristic of the period, since it was necessary for the wearer to lift the chin and peer imperiously down the nose. The cloche led to society’s tolerance of eye and lip cosmetics, which gave definition to the face.
Where did the Mortarboard come in?
The mortarboard’s historical roots can be traced to the medieval square biretta worn by both clergy and laity to indicate social status. As the affairs of the Church and academe became separated over the centuries, so did their hats. The biretta was modified to become the head wear of the clergy, and the mortarboard (or flattened square tam), became the hat of the academic.
A cheap, simple, visor, cloth hat moved from the baseball diamond to perch on more heads than any other kind of head wear today. The proletarian baseball cap is anti-elitist, deliberately shunning high fashion. The cap can proclaim a wearer’s affiliation with a particular team; be an emblem of solidarity with workers; a memento of a special place or event; and show what kind of beer you drink or music you like. Worn with designer jeans it can become trendy, when worn back to front it can mean peer identity or a badge of defiance.
It is difficult to imagine today, but in the past almost everyone had at least one hat for each season of the year – straw hats for spring and summer, and felt or fur hats for fall and winter. Upper-middle-class women had a whole collection of hats to suit different times of the day and to match their outfits, which they replaced each year. Others of more moderate means had a milliner re-trim or recondition the previous year’s model to produce the new year’s shape. Hats were worn in all public places, including on the street, in restaurants, for visits, and in the theater. Men were expected to remove their hats in the company of ladies and indoors.
Many words and phrases connected with hats have become part of everyday language.
When a person puts on their thinking cap to give a problem careful thought, there are mentally imitating the teachers and philosophers of the Middle Ages who often wore distinctive caps that set them apart from those with less learning.
The expression mad as a hatter has been in use ever since Lewis Carroll wrote of the Mat Hatter’s tea party in his famous children’s tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865. Carroll was referring to the industrial disease caused by inhaling the fumes of mercuric nitrate, used in the felting of animal furs for hat making. It caused twitching, nervousness and irritability – just like the antics of the Mad Hatter.
bee in his or her bonnet. eat your hat. hold onto your hat. hats off to you! feather in their cap. Keep it under your hat. She’s setting her cap for him. I’ve thrown my hat in the ring. If the cap fits, wear it!. You’re talking through your hat. That’s really old hat. Home is where one hangs one’s hat.
This blog post is based on a past SCHS exhibit