Victorian Hats: Three Stories and a Basement


If you want to get ahead and get noticed, get a hat

The gold rushes of the nineteenth century are familiar to us all, but have you ever heard of a plume rush?  The craze of avian hats begun in 1870 became so widespread that by the middle of the 1880s, five million birds a year were killed by the millinery industry to keep up with the demand.

Egrets and herons provided the most popular feathers, especially the “bridal feathers” grown during mating season. But even tree sparrows and woodpeckers weren’t safe from plume hunters.

Things became so bad that when ornithologist, Frank Chapman, walked down the streets of Manhattan in 1886, he documented forty species of birds—not in the trees or sky—but perched upon women’s heads.  

 Milliner:  A designer who creates geometrical shapes unknown to mathmaticians.

 In 1886  bird feathers were selling for more than $20 an ounce (more

than five hundred dollars in today’s currency). This increased to $32 an ounce during the start of the twentieth century, which made them worth twice their weight in gold. “That there should be an owl or ostrich left with a single feather apiece hardly seems possible,” Harper”s Bazaar reported on the winter hat season in 1897

 The feather trade wasn’t confined to the east. Much of it occurred in the American west and Oregon, California and Texas were prime hunting grounds.    

Her hat is a creation that will never go out of style; it will just look ridiculous year after year. – Fred Allen

Women were called a “bird’s worst enemy” but in time they became advocates.  Alarmed by the decimation of birds Boston socialite Harriet Lawrence Hemenway held a series of teas to discuss the problem.  She then organized a boycott of feathers and helped form the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the oldest in the nation. 

 Eventually, the society was able to get the feather trade outlawed in Massachusetts and the first wild life protection movement spread across the country.  Hats still remained high and wide, but they were trimmed with ribbons, lace and flowers instead of feathers.

Why did women go overboard with hats? 

According to a recent news release, hats make women feel more powerful.  Historians credit the World War for making large, outrageous hats go out of favor.  But one can’t help but wonder if the nineteenth amendment giving women the right to vote might have lessened the need to show power through headgear.

So what”s your opinion of hats–feathered or otherwise?  Who”s planning to wear an Easter Bonnet this year?


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18 thoughts on “Victorian Hats: Three Stories and a Basement”

  1. I’m either very early or late. So, these made the women feel powerful? I’m sure. Crazy, to be sure. Your pictures are great. The only thing I have from this early 20th Century classic hat brigade is a hat pin, that belonged to my Mother. It is great and very sharp.

  2. Cheers for the ladies who boycotted feathers before our population of beautiful birds was wiped out. Those hats were spectacular but cruel.
    I remember wearing hats for dressier occasions in college, my favorite was a little black pillbox with a veil that came partway over my face (those veils were flattering–wish they’d come back).
    The hats I have now, alas, are practical things, either for warmth or for shade. Mostly I forget to put them on.
    Thanks for a very interesting blog, Margaret.

  3. I always enjoy your posts, Margaret. They’re so interesting and this one sure is. I had no idea that birds played so large a part in women’s hats. Poor things. Thank goodness plumes went out of style. I’ve never been a hat-wearer. They look stupid on me. Definitely not flattering. I envy women who can wear hats though. I think they’re gorgeous. Thanks for a wonderful blog. Wishing you much success!

  4. Hi Elizabeth, I remember those veils and they were flattering. I never wore a pillbox, but I remember them from the Kennedy years. I like hats and they’re great for bad hair days.


  5. Hi Linda, I can’t imagine hats looking stupid on you. Of course, looking stupid didn’t seem to bother those Victorians. How would you like to sit behind someone wearing a three story hat?


  6. Three stories and a basement? LOL
    I love hats but of course you can’t wear one because it leaves a DENT in your hair. Women used to put the hats on and leave them on, but that day is gone.

  7. Anne, they were outrageous, but the Victorians weren’t the only ones to use wildlife for fashion. I remember as a child standing in line behind a woman who wore a dead fox over her shoulder. I had nightmares for weeks!

  8. What fun pictures! I was raised in a Catholic household during the days when females were required to wear hats to church so I had a collection of hats growing up. My favorite was a velvet tam with a jaunty grosgrain bow on the side – my twelve year old self thought it made me look quite fetching 🙂

  9. I would love to wear hats, but I would have to get them specially made, because I have a small head.. Yep the hairdresser told me that. When she puts on even the smallest cap to highlight my hair, she has to staple it to get it to fit right.. But I am not one for feathers, but I love the Fashionaters they have today.. I think they are quite something…

  10. I don’t really do the hat thing except in the winter when its really cold. I can remember getting Easter Bonnets when I was a kid and we all wore them to church. I don’t think any of ours had feathers though. Love the covers of your books.

  11. Hi Quilt Lady, thanks. I love my covers, too. Especially the new one for Gunpowder Tea. I especially like the suspicious look on the hero’s face.

    I miss Easter bonnets, don’t you?

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