Fashion history of hats
  1. The Antique
  2. The Middle Ages
  3. 16th to 18th century
  4. 19th century
  5. 20th century
  6. 21st century
  7. Final remarks

The Antique

Historically, hats have been worn not only for protection in cold, wet weather, from sunshine, or wind and safety, but also 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 mitres worn by a bishop vs. what a priest wears.

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 was found in a glacier in the Alps between Italy and Austria, wore a stiched bearskin cap tied with a strap. His body was dated to be there since 3250 BC. 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 Mediterranian region, younger artifacts documented vase-like versions of the Eqyptian conical one. In the Greek and Roman Emipres, concial and round pieces were worn by actors. In those times, a hat was a sign of liberty. Thus, slaves were given the pileus – a simple skull-like cap upon letting them free. After Nero‘s death, it became common to wear hats everyday.

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 laws existed that prescribed who was allowed to 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. Thus, 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 15the century.

Portrait of Francisco de los Cobos y Molina
Jan Gossaert (Netherlandish, about 1478-1532). Portrait of Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, about 1530–1532, Oil on panel 43.8 × 33.7 cm (17 1/4 × 13 1/4 in.), 88.PB.43.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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. In the 17th century, peacock feathers served as adorment 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. - Friederich the Great #quote Click To Tweet
Pompeo Batoni Portrait of John Talbot
Pompeo Batoni (Italian (Lucchese), 1708 – 1787). Portrait of John Talbot, later 1st Earl Talbot, 1773, Oil on canvas 274.3 × 182.2 cm (108 × 71 3/4 in.), 78.PA.211. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

In Europe, the tricore was popular among men (see photo above). The brim of this piece was flapped up on the sides and the back leading to a triangle shape. Today the tricore is still worn in the left Rhineland by the male members of carnival clubs. This tradition goes back to the French occupation. The only female to wear the tricore is the Tanzmarie. She dances the entire time along the more than 4 miles (6.5 km) long parade route 6.5 km of the Rosenmontagzug (name of the parade) to the music of her club’s band.

Nelson wearing a bicore. “04SEP06 – Nelsons Column London” by AegirPhotography is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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.

In the 1770s, collapsible bonnets with sewn in bones served to protect the wigs worn by men and women at those times.

European or American leather pileus 18th century From: Met museum of Arts
Leather pileus. 18th century. American or European. Met museum of Arts.

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 related to her cotton trade with India. From England turbans found their way to France.

English men wore riding hats that then also were used by women when riding.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun painting with wide brim
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, 1755 – 1842), The Vicomtesse de Vaudreuil, French, 1785, Oil on panel, 83.2 × 64.8 cm (32 3/4 × 25 1/2 in.), 85.PB.443. From: Getty Museum open source.

19th century

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.

In 1809, Mary Dixon Kies introduced a new technique to weave straw, silk and threads. She became the first women in the US to told 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, gauz, 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. Note that the neck was considered to be an erogenous zone at the time.

Bonnet ca. 1860 with frill in the back to cover the neck. Met Museum of Art. Bonnet ca. 1860. American or European. See the frill in the back to cover the neck. Met Museum of Art.
Flower pot style. ca. 1880. Probably American. Met Museum of Art. Flower pot style. ca. 1880. Probably American. Met Museum of Art.

Like these photos? If so, please feel free to pin them to your own Pinterest board.

In the 1865s, hats became It again. A couple of years later, bonnets were considered 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 were fashionable.

After 1849, the bowler – also known as Coke – became popular for men. It was created by Thomas Bowler, a chief hatter. Note that the Coke became the Must-have of bankers in the mid-20th century. Again a symbol of profession.

More and more women of upper class and aristorcat heritage started taking up sportive activities. Consequently, male clothing including headwear were adapted in women fashion. Boaters and trilbys became acceptable for all but the dressiest events. Brown trilbys were common at races.

20th century

In the 1900s, women were supposed to have an S-shape. My grandma told me that her mother had a long thick ponytail hanging at the kitchen wall. When my grand-grandma was invited to an evening festivity, their maid would start tieing my grand-granny’s waist in the morning. The griddle was made tighter and tigther every 15 minutes or so. Then in the afternoon, the updo was made with the own hair and the ponytail. After dressing, the hat would be set 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 revolunizing the headwear and later continued to change what women wore. The Great War put an end to the high hair styles and huge brims as well as unpractical clothes. After the war, the crowns were deeper and wider that before. This style made young women look like they wear playing dress-up with their mother’s items. A main advantage was that no hair pins were needed to hold the piece in place. As time progressed the crown deepened. In the mid 1920s, head hugging styles like a cloche were popular among young (often single) women, who cut their hair. They were a sub-culture called flappers.

dancer wearing a flapper style sequin cap
My dance partner and I posing after a 1920s dance presentation. I am wearing a 1920s sequin cap. Photo by Janverne

In the 1930s, the crowns went up again as curly hair styles became main stream. Wide brims and the 3-story style saw a revival. Fedoras well matched with tailored suits. Today fedoras are worn 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 millner’s.

evening look with pill box from the 50s modeled by 80+ woman
80+ model featuring a 1950s evening outfit with tulle and feather trimmed pill box

After the war, the New Look created by Christian Dior which again showed distinct waists and wide skirts went well with the pill box. As time progressed, many women and men in continental Europe as well as America abanndoned covering their head on a regular basis. Cars, motorbikes and the popular Elvis Presley inspired hair style just weren’t a good combination with headwear. John F. Kennedy was the first US President who was sworn in with a bare head. Jean Connery wore a trilby as 007 in the early James Bond movies.

In the 60s, my mom only wore her gray fur Tyrolian-style feather trimmed beauty only for Sunday’s Best in winter. My 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 70s, 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 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.”

young woman in casual vacation outfit with flat bill hat
Me in Bermundas and racer back top, flat bill hat and Birkenstocks on vacation in Florida

Extravagant scuplture-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 sociatal 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.

young woman in huge brim hat and red skirt suit and man in pants suit
Our wedding outfits. Photo taken by H. Mölders

The 21st century

At the beginning of the new Millenium, young people started wearing beanies that they pulled down even over their ears. Musicians wore the tribly or fedora on stage making them trendy among their fans.

Also various sub-cultures picked up on head tppers. 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.

steampunk typical headgear
Steampunk woman with google, floral and feather embellished head gear. “NJN-stmpk38c” by njTare is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Royal Ascot horse race in Britain, still requires all guests in the Royal Enclosure to wear hats. The Kentucky Derby horse race that was set up in 1875 with the Royal Ascot as a pargon, is still the largest occassion to don hats in the US. Showing up without a one is a huge fashion faux pas.

Beautiful fascinator. “Kate and Wills” by JeanM1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Paddock area, Kentucky Derby.” by travelationship is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Regionally traditional gear is worn for special occassions. Just to give some examples. Think of cowboy hats in the Southwest at rodeos, at music festivals and outdoor concerts as well as in western bars US-wide. In the American South, respect asks for women’s hats at Christenings, church vists and weddings. In Alaska, the cold season requires trapper-hats or at least beanies for thermal comfort and to avoid cold related skin problems on the ears. In Bavaria, chruch weddings, local community events and Oktoberfest ask for traditional lederhosen with gingham shirts ask for the wool felt Tirolerhut with board hair embellishment.

Final remarks

Some of the cultural aspects I 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. There are still “laws” – called dress-codes as well. How to look stylish with hats includes to wear the right hat at the right occassion with the right outfit.

Don’t let the right outfit be a random thing. Wear the right look in every situation by looking up what to wear when in How to Dress for Success in Midlife. Buy my book now.

If you want to get ahead, get a hat. - unknown #quote Click To Tweet

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© 2013-2020 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. shelbeeontheedge1

    I love hats and even more so I loved reading about the history of hats. I am always fascinated by the history of fashion because everything we wear as a fashion statement most likely came into being for practical purposes rather than style statements. This was a super fun and interesting read. Thanks for sharing and linking up!


  2. i would wear hats everyday if i could! i would post my great gatsby hat i made here, but not so sure how to just post an image….
    my apologies for the link…not trying to do ‘click bait’…just super proud of my cloche hat!
    I belong in an era where i could wear hats everyday! particularly gorgeous are Edwardian hats!

  3. donnadoesdresses

    Your fine intelligence and knowledge for such a variety of things never ceases to impress me, Nicole!! Thank you for sharing this – and I loved your wedding pic!! Have a Happy New Year and a Happy New Decade!!
    Donna 🧚🏻‍♀️❤️🐝

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