My hat’s off to you!  (Clothing as history, pt. 1)

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

“I can wear a hat or take it off, but either way it’s a conversation piece.”  Hedda Hopper, American gossip columnist during the first half of the 20th century

“Cock your hat – angles are attitudes.”  Frank Sinatra

The hat can be as simple as a knitted stocking to keep your head warm to an elaborate masterpiece that stops traffic.  “Humans have covered their heads since evolution.  Initially headwear offered protection from the elements, from injury or from falling rocks, weapons or masonry.  Later head coverings became symbols of status of authority or of uniform and as time progressed they became an art form as well as an everyday piece of apparel.  In fashion terms hats are a very noticeable accessory because the onlooker’s attention is always first drawn to the face. A hat is the most noticeable fashion item anyone can wear.”i Let’s take a look at some different hats and what they might say about the wearer.  Some of the illustrations in this blog come from the Beardsley, Montgomery, and Gordon Families Collection of vintage clothing (MSS 297).  This collection was donated by Evadean Gordon in 2002, begun by her husband’s great-grandmother, Martha Cooper Beardsley (1831-1922), and passed down through the generations to Evadean. 

First, a bit of terminology and a piece of historical trivia.  Millinery is the art of hat making.  The word comes from the Italian city of Milan, where the finest hats were made.  At one time, women’s hats were made by milliners and men’s hats by hatters, although that distinction is no longer so cut and dried.  That brings up the phrase, “mad as a hatter.”  Mercury was used in the hat-making business to remove hair from animal skins and make it mat or hold together well.  We now know that mercury can be toxic if inhaled or ingested, but during the 17th century this was not the case.  “Workers would often be exposed to mercury vapors in the steamy air. … Mercury poisoning attacks the nervous system, causing drooling, hair loss, uncontrollable muscle twitching, a lurching gait, and difficulties in talking and thinking clearly. Stumbling about in a confused state with slurred speech and trembling hands, affected hatters were sometimes mistaken for drunks…. In very severe cases, they experienced hallucinations.”ii

MSS 297-9-7

Quite the occupational hazard….but now, on to hats themselves.  This felt fedora dates to 1950 and thus would not have been made using mercury (its use in the felt industry was banned by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1941).  In the 20th century, “the Fedora was king (also known as a trilby hat in the UK) supplanting, in short order, all other styles for men. Although the style is mostly associated with men, the name “Fedora” comes from the heroine of French playwright Victorien Sardou’s drama presented in Paris in 1882. She wore the hat style that would become the hallmark of movie tough guys, Chicago gangsters, private eyes, newspaper reporters – in fact by the 1930s, virtually every man who put on a suit of clothes topped it off with a fedora.  … Today, the fedora is, hands down, the best-selling men’s style (we’re talking full size hat – not ball caps and the like). The safari style, a fedora crown with a brim turned down in the front and the back, received a huge boost with the Indiana Jones movies where Indy’s hat was emblematic of the man.”iii

Next, the bowler.  “The bowler hat was created in 1850 for an English game warden, James Coke. It was intended as a riding hat that Mr. Coke could count on for hard hat protection as he rode his steed through his protectorate looking out for poachers.”iv  This distinction didn’t last long as soon everyone was wearing a bowler.  “It was rapidly adopted by the upper class for sports.  Within a decade it had spread to the city, where it was widely adopted by the middle and lower-middle classes.  The working-class man’s attempt to blur class boundaries by wearing a bowler was satirized in the early films of Charlie Chaplin.  Eventually, the bowler became an icon of the bourgeoisie….and, after the Second World War, was worn mainly by middle class businessmen.”v

Although people have always covered their heads in some fashion, hats for women became de rigueur when the church mandated that a woman’s hair must be covered.  How seriously this mandate played out, and the extent to which a woman’s hat was a necessity or a fashion statement has varied widely over the ages.  Women in some religious groups cover their hair/head entirely.  For others, both fashion and need dictated their choices.  For instance, during the middle of the 19th century, pale skin was fashionable. No well-bred lady would want to sport sun-kissed skin and/or freckles, which might be a sign that you had to work to earn your keep.  Horrors!! (sarcasm intentional)  Wide brimmed bonnets like this preserved both skin and status.  A variation on this would be the cloth sunbonnets you might see in images of our ancestors crossing the prairie….although given the hard work that entailed, these bonnets protected the head from sun and dust and in no way implied anything about the woman not having to work.

Similar in style to this wide-brimmed bonnet, but designed with other purposes in mind, are these Shaker hats.  The Shakers were certainly not interested in the vanity of pale skin, nor in the vanity of having a prettier or nicer hat than, perhaps, your neighbor.     “The first consideration of Shaker clothing was practicality. Maintaining uniformity of appearance among Believers had much to do with fostering union, or a sense of a kinship among all Believers. When no one has unusually fine garments, ornaments, or accessories, there is less opportunity for envy and ill will that can harm communal families. According to the 1866 Ministry circular concerning the dress of Believers, “[U]niformity in style, or pattern in dress, between members, contributes to peace and union in spirit, in as much as the ends of justice are answered, and righteousness and justice are necessary companions.””  [This does not exclude beauty from the equation, however.]  “Clothes were never to be a source of vanity, but they were made attractive by the quality of their construction and materials.” vi

Both photographs from UASC CS 664, the Donald Pitzer Collection

Take a close look at these Shaker bonnets to see how well they were made.  The second hat is dark in color and at first glance seems drab.  But if you zoom in, you will see that the fabric itself has a lovely pattern, and that there is beautiful braiding along the brim. 

Moving from the simplicity of the Shakers back to the more worldly, consider how hairstyles also influence hat styles. Think about those towering hairdos you have seen in images of Marie Antoinette and other ladies in her court.  With hair like that, a hat that in any way echoes the shape of the head would be impossible.  Hats perched high above.  “And the hairstyles continued to rise in height. In February 1776, the queen, going to a ball given by the Duchess of Orléans, had plumes so high that they had to be removed from her coiffure to get into her carriage. She had to leave them behind when she returned to Versailles.”vi  Hair and hats like this were certainly not for the masses, who were not happy with such displays of extravagance.  I think you know what happened to Marie Antoinette!

Above, left: MSS 297-9-8, circa 1920. Center: MSS 297-10-9, circa 1910. Right: MSS 297-10-5, circa 1920.

The very antithesis of this is the cloche hat, seen above.  It’s “a close-fitting hat worn by women from c. 1908 to 1930.  Its bell-like shape, which gave the hat its name, is most associated with the 1920s.”viii  There are a number of examples of this type of hat within the Beardsley, Montgomery, and Gordon Families Collection.  This was the era of the flapper—a young woman who pushed the boundaries of society and pushed hard.  The cloche-wearing flapper was a modern woman.

Hat styles also mirrored feelings about a growing consciousness for the need to preserve our natural resources.  For example, in Edwardian times, feathers or plumes were all the rage. 

Plumes have always been a status symbol and sign of economic stability.  Fortunes were paid by rich individuals for exotic feathered hats.  Gorgeous feathered hats could command as much as £100 [translated into U.S. dollars in today’s economy, this would be over $16,000] in the early Edwardian era.  The Edwardians were masters in the art of excess and the flamboyant hats of the era are a clear example of this.  At one point whole stuffed birds were used to decorate hats, but as the new more enlightened century emerged, protests were voiced.  In America the Audubon society expressed concern and in England the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) campaigned for ecological understanding.  Eventually plumage pleas were heard and Queen Alexandra forbade the wearing of rare osprey feathers at court so that the osprey bird was not plundered for feathers.  For a few years magazines quietly ignored making reference to feathers on hats as women continued to wear them.  But soon the use of other rare bird feathers was banned and thereafter only farmed feathers could be used and only from specific birds.ix

The hats below are American made, contain ostrich and egret feathers, and are not as elaborate as those described above, but they, too, would have soon gone out of style among “ecologically-minded” consumers.   

MSS 297-12-5, rear and side views. Dating to 1918-1922, these are egret feathers.
MSS 297-141-6, side and detail views. Dating to 1915, these are ostrich feathers.

Whether you wear a hat only on a bad hair day, when it’s too cold/too hot, or almost never, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at hats as a mirror of society.  There are many more items of clothing to explore in the Beardsley, Montgomery, and Gordon Families Collection, so stay tuned for more glimpses into our past illustrated by sartorial splendor.

Resources Consulted

Baclawski, Karen.  The Guide to Historic Costume.  London: B.T. Batsford, 1995.   General Collection GT507.B33 1995

Bashor, Will.  Marie Antoinette’s Craziest, Most Epic Hairstyles.  HuffPost blog, December 16, 2013.

Crane, Diana.  Fashion and Its Social Agendas:  Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.    General Collection GT525.C75 2000

Fashion-Era website: The Wearing of Hats.

“Mad as a Hatter.”  Corrosion Doctors website.

Shaker Dress: “Plain, Comfortable, Economical, and Comely.”  An online exhibit from the Shaker Museum at the Historic Mount Lebanon Site in New Lebanon, New York

Village Hats website: History of Hats.

Vintage Fashion Guild website: History of Hats for Women.





vCrane, p. 84



viiiBaclawski, p. 72


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