Much has been written here on Petticoats and Pistols about the advent of the Stetson, cowboy hats, and bowlers. I wanted to balance that with a look at
Women’s Hat Fashions.
It seems there weren’t many professions for women in the 1800s where they could make a respectable living on their own. School teachers abound in many western historicals. The other occupation I’ve noticed is that of a milliner.
I’ve always had a thing for hats. I’m sorry that they aren’t worn more in today’s world. I love seeing the hats worn by Princess Kate and Queen Elizabeth. I have never see the Queen without a hat. Such elegance!
It seems in the past everyone wore hats. Why? What made them start wearing hats in the first place? Was it due to necessity? Or is a hat simply a frivolous accessory like a tie or jewelry? And other than for certain events like the Kentucky Derby, why don’t people wear hats today?
The first known example of a hat is from a tomb painting in Egypt – ca. 3200 BC. In the Middle Ages, the church decreed that all women must cover their hair. In 1529, the term “millaner” was first recorded. It referred to the haberdashers—men who traveled to Milan, Italy to obtain the best and most popular straw products for hats.
Hatmaking and millinery is the designing and manufacture of hats, with the term “milliner” more closely associated with the making of women hats. In the past, a millinery (owned by men and women) sold all types of clothing to men, women and children, including undergarments, neckerchiefs, handkerchiefs, ties, coats, and hats. It is only more recently that the term has become specialized for women’s hats more than anything else.
Throughout the years, hats have served several functions for women:
- A declaration of lifestyle. (Ex: Catholic nuns and their habit)
- Protection from the elements. (Ex: Sunbonnets)
- Protection from unwanted male attention. (Ex: Bonnets)
- A declaration of social status. (The rich often wore larger, more expensive hats.)
- For vanity.
It can also reveal personality and etiquette. (Don’t you love it when a gentleman tips his hat to a lady?)
In early 1800’s America, bonnets were popular. Their brims increased in size until the late 1830s and some also sported netting or veils. In the 1840s, brim size began to decrease to reveal more of a woman’s face and hair. A ribbon frill or bow was often placed at the back of the bonnet to cover any exposed skin at the neck as this was considered an erogenous area. (Hence the high collars on dresses too!)
The tradition of wearing hats to horse racing events began with the Royal Ascot in Britain. They enforced a strict dress code for those attending the races. This tradition was adopted at other horse racing events. In 1875, the first Kentucky Derby initiated the largest hat fashion event in America. To this day, to attend without a hat is considered a social faux pas.
In the late 1890s, hat brims once again increased in size, some becoming so large that a woman would lose her balance.
Hats were decorated with feathers, stuffed birds, silk flowers, lace, bows and ribbons. In Florida, 95% of the egret population was killed off for their beautiful white plumes to decorate hats for women. In 1901, early environmentalists pushed for President Theodore Roosevelt’s help to pass a law making it illegal to shoot the birds.
A bit of trivia: January 15th marks the unofficial National Hat Day. This was started by hat enthusiasts for no other reason than to celebrate their favorite hats.
What about you? Do you like hats? What type? Would you like to see a comeback or do you think their time has passed?
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