Women’s Hat Fashions in the 1800s


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?)

1860 Straw Taffeta Bonnet

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?

Comment for a chance to win a copy of my story ~ His Springtime Bride which is part of the Anthology. (I’m ready for spring!)

Western Spring Weddings

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29 thoughts on “Women’s Hat Fashions in the 1800s”

  1. Thank you for a very interesting blog. The only time I wear a hat is for sun protection, like when I’m mowing in bright sunlight, but my hat is usually just a baseball hat. How gauche! lol

    It seems to me these days that with loss in the ozone layer, that sun rays seem much more piercing than they used to be. So wearing a hat may be good for comeback to protect one’s face and neck. Quite different from a fashion statement, though fashion doesn’t have to be excluded, and women in the past did indeed also use hats to protect their complexions.

    So this topic makes me think I need a larger hat–perhaps a straw one for greater protection that could be used for all kinds of outdoor events. As you can see I’m more pragmatic than fashion oriented. lol Thanks for this topic that has led me to thinking of getting some new hats.

    • Hi Eliza,
      You make a very good point about the ozone layer. I do burn easier than I used to in less amount of time. I like the big floppy sunhats–although they can be a nuisance when it is windy.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Debra. Do you mean like the Kentucky Derby hats? I imagine they bump into things something dreadful–and also block the view of people behind the wearer. They are stunning, however.

    • Despite my husband wearing a hat whenever he goes out, my sons all say the same thing, Janine. They think their faces are the wrong shape for hat-wearing. I think they are wrong–but then they say “You’re just my mother so you have to say that.” They just don’t think that I can be objective…lol.

  2. Kathryn, I really enjoyed reading about the history of the hat and found it very informative. Although most do not wear hats anymore, I do. I love hats! I often get random people complementing me and then telling me that they don’t wear hats because they don’t look good in them. I tell them they just haven’t found the right one. Plus, hats are not always easy to find. So, when I travel, I make it a point to go in any store where I see hats, and I usually find one more to add to my collection. That being said, hats need to make a comeback!

    • Hi Dali,
      Your reply brought a smile to me! I went through a phase of wearing hats when I was younger. I too got a few looks and a few compliments. I recently tried to crochet a cloche – style hat. It came out “so-so.” I have found one at a nearby store that is straw and would love to buy it. I am wrestling with the decision. I’m not too sure that I would wear it much.

  3. I’m not much of a hat person. I have thick hair and I never look right lol. I always liked the broad rimmed ones though.

    • Hi! So glad you stopped by and commented. You are lucky to have thick hair–but I can certainly understand your dilemma with wearing hats. I imagine it was a bit rough on women with thick hair back in the 1800s too.

  4. Fun topic! I especially enjoyed the pictures. I have never been much of a hat person although I do get a kick out of my childhood Easter pictures when most women and girls wore hats to church. Hats, gloves, and new shoes were a must!

  5. What an awesome post, Kathryn. Thank you! I will refer to it again, I promise. I remember my Gram always wearing a little net thing atop her head for church. My mom never wore hats but I always had an adorable one for Easter when I was little. These days, I mostly wear a visor if I am out in the sun (ball game, horse rescue, Disneyland, beach, taking a walk.) But a few years ago, I had an elegant tea party for my niece’s bridal shower, and the guests were asked to wear hats. I found a darling “fascinator” ala Duchess Kate that was a real hit. I wore it again not long after for Easter. But I usually don’t wear hats, and I kinda wish they were more popular. I love the way they look. I just wrote a story set in World War 2 where I looked up information on fashion. I learned that with so many clothing and fabric restrictions, women wore fancier hats and lower heels. There didn’t seem to be shortages of millinery material, and high heels were too indicative of the pin-up poster girls GI’s liked LOL. I super enjoyed this post today. xo

    • Hi Tanya,
      I can just picture you with a visor on! Knowing your personality and your interests, that sounds like the perfect “hat” for you. I would love to see a picture of you in your “fascinator”. You must post it!!!

  6. Katherine, this is a great blog. I love hats.The last one I wore was for my granddaughter’s high school graduation out in California last June. The ceremony was an outside event, something we don’t have in the Texas Panhandle because of the wind, and everyone wore hats. I had to buy one, but it’ll come in handy this year when I go back for another graduation. In one of our anthologies, I wrote about one of the town founders in the late 1800’s who wore a hat that looked like a bird had landed in her nest on top of my lady’s head. Reminds me of your last hat picture. I have a research book about Fashion throughout the centuries, so I use it a lot to help me see how I want to describe something (both men and women). I’m pleased to say that the hat reappears in my contempories about the town three generations later. This time my heroine is wearing the same hat, described the same, to the Spring Festival. I wore hats as a young woman, but not too many of them because they went out of style before I became old enough to drive, but gloves were very popular. Ouch, I just told you all my age! LOL Fantastic blog, sister Filly.

    • Hi Phyliss! Thanks for stopping by! One of the research articles on hats said that Princess Kate had brought them back in style, but I think it is really an English thing, and not something that reached here “over the pond.” The bird in a nest–I’ve read about that in other research books. Female fashion is kind of crazy at times… That book of yours sounds interesting–and a great addition to any writer’s library!

  7. Hi Kathryn!

    I absolutely love hats. I never wear them because the ones that are out nowadays to me look like things that older ladies wear (unless they are a baseball cap) — and since I’m getting up there in age nowadays, I just skip the whole thing. But I love, love, love hats. : ) Fun blog!

    • Hi Karen,

      How nice to have you stop by! I kind of agree about the hats I see in traditional stores. Online, the hats are really something. Just Google Kentucky Derby hats and you’ll see a whole bunch of beautiful ones. They can get quite pricey however!

  8. Thank you for sharing this lovely post, Kathryn! Although I am not a hat person, I do enjoy seeing the stylish fashions of the past.

  9. I never really cared for hats for myself. I was glad when we didn’t have to wear them to church. I don’t look that good in them. I do think they are lovely, but on other people.
    About 3 years ago my oldest daughter started wearing a hat to work every Friday. She is a director at a community college. She has some lovely ones. I have several in a storage closet I need to dig out. A friend had an antique booth and I had gotten some for her to sell. They are very 50’s and 60’s. Flower covered pillboxes, etc. I sincerely doubt she will wear any of them, she is more the classy type. I will enlist her 5 year old daughter to help me give her a hard time.

  10. I love hats and would probably wear them if they didn’t give me severe “hat hair”.

    Cindy W.

    • Hi Cindy,Thanks for joining in! That is my main issue with wearing them too. Plus…they are just one more thing to remember (like my purse) in a very busy life! I guess my beach hat is about the only one that truly gets much exposure to being worn!

  11. The giveaway portion of this post is now over. Thank you for stopping by and commenting everyone. I enjoyed chatting with you about hats. I used Random Number Generator . com to pick a winner for my drawing and Britney Adams name was drawn! Congratulations, Britney! You may contact me at kathryn at katherynalbright dot com and let me know where to mail your autographed copy of Western Spring Weddings!

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