January 15 is National Hats Day. This post elucidates the origin of various head gear from the Antique to today, its former meaning and on what occasion the pieces were or are worn. It points to resources for more detailed information. Learn about the history of hats.
- Which Hats Were Worn in the Antique
- History of hats in the Middle Ages
- 16th to 18th Century
- 19th Century Early Victorian Era
- The Late Victorian Era
- The First Half of the 20th Century
- Hats between 1960 and 1999
- 21st Century
- Exciting Hats Today
- Final Remarks on the History of Hats
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links.
Which Hats Were Worn in the Antique
Historically, hats served not only for protection in cold, wet weather, from sunshine, or wind and safety, but also for religious and other ceremonies, identification of belonging to a societal or professional group. Hats have represented authority and power as well as the degree thereof. For instance, a greater height of the crown indicated a higher rank of the wearer than a lower height. Just think of the miters of a bishop vs. that of a priest.
Of course, it is hard to pin-point when the first hat was made. The Venus of Willendorf dated to be made between 25,000 and 28,000 BC seems to wear a woven hat. The frozen man (Ötzi) who fell into a crevasse in a glacier in the Alps between Italy and Austria around 3250 BC, wore a stitched bearskin cap tied with a strap. So far the oldest picture of a hat is a 3200 BC tomb painting found in Thebes, Egypt. It features a man with a conical straw hat for sun protection of the shaved head. Farther north in Demark, the Tollund Man found in a bog wore a pointed wool cap with a sheepskin thong to be fastened under the chin. His death was dated to around 400 BC.
The Greek petasos had a brim. In the Mediterranean region, younger artifacts documented vase-like versions of the Egyptian conical one. Actors wore conical and round pieces during the Greek and Roman Empires because, a hat signalized liberty. A reason for this association was that slaves received the pileus – a simple skull-like cap upon letting them free. After Nero‘s death, wearing hats everyday became common.
History of Hats in the Middle Ages
The first felt hats are attributed to St. Clement back in 800 AD. In Germany, hats appeared not before 1000 AD. Men wore structured head toppers indicating their profession and rank. In Saxonia, the Sachsenhut was a straw version.
Various sumptuary laws prescribed who could wear which type of clothing. According to the 1215 Fourth Council of the Lateran, for instance, Jews had to wear the usually yellow, either pointed or square Judenhut. The church decreed that women must cover their hair. Therefore, women donned simple scarves to elaborated hennins depending on the societal status of their husbands. In 1356, the women of Speyer and Straßburg were even prohibited to don their long hair down.
In the 14th, the gugel showed up, followed by the barret in the 15th century.
16th to 18th Century
In the late 16th century, men wore conical pieces with wide brim in Germany and Switzerland. Women’s headgear started to get structure. Starting in the 17th century, peacock feathers served as adornment on flappy hats.
By the 18th century, milliner had become a female job from the design to the production. The word “milliner” refers to the fashion metropole Milan which was famous for the high quality straw headwear.
A crown is merely a hat that let’s the rain in. – Friedrich the Great
In Europe, the tricore was popular among men (see photo above). This piece had a brim flapped up on the sides and in the back leading to a triangle shape. Today, male members of carnival clubs still wear the tricore during the carnival season (November 11 to ash Wednesday) in the left Rhineland. This tradition goes back to the French occupation. The only female to wear the tricore is the Tanzmarie (dancing Mary). She dances the entire time along the more than 4 miles (6.5 km) long parade route 6.5 km of the Rosenmontagszug (rose Monday parade) to the music of her club’s band.
The bicorne (photo above) had the brim pinned up on the front and back only. From your history class, you may remember the paintings of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) that showed Nelson wearing a bicorne.
Bonnets and Pileus
In the 1770s, collapsible bonnets with sewn in bones served to protect the wigs worn by men and women at those times.
Ironically, the pileus (photo above) of freed Roman slaves was worn during the America Revolutionary War and the French Revolution. After the French Revolution, women wore cotton bonnets at home. Women of rich heritage wore silk bonnets with tall crowns. This means that despite France now was a democracy, height still indicated the societal wealth and rank.
In the 1790s, turbans became in fashion in England because of her cotton trade with India. Later turbans found their way from England to France.
English men wore riding hats. Therefore, women used this head cover too when riding.
19th Century Early Victorian Era
At the beginning of the 19th century, bonnets became common for women. They served to shade the face to protect fair skin. In the settling of the American southwest, shading the face was especially necessary for settlers from Scandinavia.
Bonnets and Straw Hats
In 1809, Mary Dixon Kies introduced a new technique to weave straw, silk and threads. She became the first women in the US to hold a patent in her own name. Her invention was widely used in New England for more than a decade. In the 1810s, bonnets made from straw or cardboard became fashionable.
As time progressed, bonnets became larger and were embellished with lace, gauze, ribbons, flowers and feathers or combinations thereof. By the 1850s, the depth decreased again showing more of the wearers face and hair. About that time, a frill was added at the back to cover the neck. Interestingly, the reason for this coverage was not to reduce Sun exposure. Instead, it served modesty purposes. At that time, people considered the neck an erogenous zone.
When Did the Bowler Become Popular?
After 1849, the bowler – also known as Coke – became popular for men. Thomas Bowler, a chief hatter, had created it. Note that the Coke became the Must-have of bankers in the mid-20th century. Again a symbol of profession.
The Late Victorian Era
In the 1865s, hats became It again. Consequently, a couple of years later, people considered bonnets to be more modest than hats. Finally, their wearer got the reputation of being matronly. At the end of the 19th century, wide brims and flat crowns, the flower pot (aka 3-story style), Tyrolean-style peaked crowns and the toque became fashionable.
More and more women of upper class and aristocrat heritage started taking up sportive activities. Consequently, women fashion adapted male clothing including headwear. Boaters and trilby became acceptable for all but the dressiest events. Brown trilby were common at races.
After Bertha Benz‘ long-distance ride in the car that her husband had invented, women’s dressing changed to adapt to the new individual mobility. In the late Victorian era, women hat fashion changed for the age of motor fashion to accommodate slowly the desire of wealthy women for driving a car.
The First Half of the 20th Century
In the 1900s (Edwardian era), fashionable women strived to have an S-shape. When my grand-grandma had an invitation to an evening festivity, their maid would start tying my grand-granny’s waist in the morning. The maid tied the griddle tighter and tighter every 15 minutes or so. Then in the afternoon, the maid made my great-grandmother an up-do that consisted of the own hair, and a ponytail-hair piece. After dressing, the maid set the hat on top of the huge hair style in front of the head using embellished hair needles of the length of knitting needles!
Coco Chanel started out with revolutionizing the headwear. Later she continued to change what women wore. The Great War put an end to the high hair styles, huge brims and unpractical clothes. After the war, the crowns were deeper and wider than before. This style made young women look like they were playing dress-up with their mother’s items. A main advantage was that the piece stayed in place without hair pins. As time progressed, the crown deepened. Head hugging styles like a cloche and the bob hair-style became popular among young (often single) women in the mid 1920s fashion, . They belonged to a sub-culture called flappers.
In the 1930s, the crowns went up again as curly hair styles became mainstream. Wide brims and the 3-story style saw a revival. Fedoras well matched with tailored suits. Today, fashionistas wear fedoras with all kinds of pants even jeans.
During WWII, the variety grew. Pieces with eyes-covering veils, flowers and feathers became popular. My mom once told me that her mother and granny had their hat decoration changed each year at the milliner’s.
After the war, the New Look created by Christian Dior again showed distinct waists. The wide skirts went well with the pill box. See this post for a photo of me wearing a pill box.
As time progressed, many people in continental Europe and America abandoned covering their head on a regular basis. Even Jean Connery only wore his trilby as 007 in the early James Bond movies. Cars, motorbikes and the popular Elvis Presley inspired hair style just weren’t a good combination with headwear. Due to this fashion development John F. Kennedy became the first US President who was sworn in with a bare head.
Hats between 1960 and 1999
In the 1960s, my mom only wore her gray fur Tyrolian-style feather trimmed beauty only for Sunday’s Best in winter. Granny Hannah donned a narrow curved up brim deep crown beige one. It matched her summer trench coat and winter camel wool coat. My grandfathers wore straw and felt fedoras in summer and winter, respectively. In the 1970s, my Dad wore a trilby for Sunday’s Best in winter. Leather caps and the Prinz Heinrich Mütze (Greek fisherman’s cap) were his choice for the commute to and from work in the cold season. My sister wore a boy-scout cap, while my brother was a convinced bare-head. My favorite was the beret.
The Hippie Flower Power movement and revival of Bohemian Style made the formerly Must-have to the signature of the petty bourgeois. I recall my Dad complaining about a driver in front of him as “Typisch Opa mit Hut.” (Typical for an old man with hat).
Extravagant sculpture-like head pieces became popular in the 1980s and due to musicians like Lady Gaga again in the early 21st century. Also young people – I was one of them – brought the American bill cap worn by baseball players to Europe. Casual headwear matching the person’s lifestyle became mainstream. At the same time, headgear lost it’s traction as part of showing societal and/or professional status except for the military and professions where the dress-code required them for safety or hygiene purposes.
Take the quiz on which casual hat matches your lifestyle.
Being a hat-lover, I picked a wide brim black one for my wedding outfit.
The 21st Century
At the beginning of the new Millennium, young people started wearing beanies. They pulled them down even over their ears. Musicians wore the trilby or fedora on stage making them trendy among their fans.
Also various sub-cultures picked up on head toppers. Gothic cones are seen at Goth meetings. Steampunk dressed up the 19th century top with watches and all kind of stuff that might have belonged to the world of Jule Verne‘s novels.
The Royal Ascot horse race in Britain, still requires all guests in the Royal Enclosure to wear hats. Fascinators are fine too. The Kentucky Derby horse race that was set up in 1875 with the Royal Ascot as a paragon, is still the largest occasion to don hats in the US.
Showing up without a one is a huge fashion faux pas.
Regionally, special occasions ask for traditional gear. Think, for instance, the cowboy hats in the Southwest at rodeos, music festivals and outdoor concerts as well as in Western Bars US-wide. In the American South, respect asks for women’s head gear at Christenings, church visits and weddings. Thermal comfort and to avoid cold-related skin problems on the ears require trapper-hats or at least beanies during the cold season in Alaska. Bavarian church weddings, local community events and Oktoberfest ask for traditional lederhosen with gingham shirts and the wool felt Tirolerhut with board hair embellishment.
Exciting Hats Today
Here some hats for various occasions from business casual style over Southern Style church hats to Kentucky Derby style.
Final Remarks on the History of Hats
Some of the cultural aspects discussed at the beginning of this post are still valid today. Think, for example, a baker’s cap, a toque, a mortarboard, velvet tam, pilot cap, trappers hat, helmet, etc. to indicate a profession and/or rank. This means there are still “fashion laws” – called dress-codes as well. Therefore I wrote a a guide How to look stylish with hats. This guide includes to wear the right hat at the right occasion with the right outfit.
If you want to get ahead, get a hat. – unknown
Amphlett, Hilda, 2003. Hats: A History of Fashion in Headwear, Dover Fashion and Costumes, Amazon.
de Courtais, Georgina, 2006. Women’s Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles: Medieval to Modern, Dover Fashion and Costumes, Amazon.
DeWitt, Nancy, 2016. Motor Age Fashion, Toppan Leefung Pte. Ltd., China.
Döbler, Hannsferdinand, 1972. Kultur und Sittengeschichte der Welt – Kleidung, Mode, Schmuck. Bertelsmann Verlag, München, Germany.
Robinson, Julian, Calvey, Gracie, 2015. The Fine Art of Fashion Illustration. Francis Lincoln Limited. London.
Young, Caroline, 2016. Style Tr-ibes, Frances Lincoln Ltd. See my review of Style Tribes
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