About Hats Across the Ages
Since their invention, hats have come and gone as status symbols, uniforms and fashion statements.

About Hats Across the Ages

You can trace the origins of the wearing of hats as far back as primitive man. Historical evidence has shown that some form of head covering was used for protection against the elements.

One of the first hats to be depicted was found in a tomb painting at Thebes and shows a man wearing a coolie-style straw hat. Other early hats include the Pileus, which was a simple skull cap, the Phrygian cap, which became identified later as the ‘liberty cap’ given to slaves in Greece and Rome when they were made free men, and the Pestasos which comes from ancient Greece and is the first known hat with a brim.

It is believed that felt, the most common material used in hat making, was originally discovered by the nomadic tribes of Asia who were known to have used felted sheep’s wool for making tents and clothing.

As hats gradually grew in popularity during the 15th Century, an increasingly diverse range of materials were used for their production. Silk, velvet, taffeta, leather, felt and beaver were all favoured. During this period hat wearing differed between men and women. With women it tended to be restricted to the upper and middle classes as well as countrywomen, whereas with men it represented an essential accessory.

It was in the late seventeenth century that women’s headgear began to emerge in its own right and not be influenced by men’s hat fashions. The word ‘milliner’, A maker of women’s hats, was first recorded in 1529 when the term referred to the products for which Milan and the northern Italian regions were well known, i.e. ribbons, gloves and straws. The haberdashers who imported these highly popular straws were called ‘Millaners’ from which the word was eventually derived.

Most popular men’s styles over the centuries

  • Capotain – Early 17th Century, originally came from Spain. It was a tall hat, with a medium brim and tapered crown. Made from felt. Most popular colour was black.
  • Sugar Loaf – Mid 17th Century – High Crown, stiff brim, it became associated with the dress worn by the Puritans.
  • The Tricorne Hat (Three cornered hat) – 18th Century.
  • Bicorne Hat – Late 18th Century – Most popular amongst artists and intellectuals.
  • Top Hat – Mid 19th Century
  • Coke Hat – Mid 19th Century – synonymous with bowler hat.
  • Panamas and Soft Hats – became popular head attire from the mid 1800s. With styles such as the pork pie in both felt and straw and the helmet in straw being introduced in the mid-late 1800s. After this period men’s hats varied little. To this day top hats and bowler hats continue to be worn for formal dress, with felts and panamas being worn for everyday wear.

By the mid 1800’s Swiss and Italian straws, together with imitation straws made from paper, cardboard, grass and horsehair were available to women, along with the introduction of velvet and tulle.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the bonnet dominated women’s fashion, becoming very large with many ribbons, flowers, feathers and gauze trims giving an appearance of even greater size. By the end of the century, although bonnets were still prevalent, many other styles were to be found, including wide brims with flat crowns, the flower pot and the toque – feathers and veils abounded.

Although early in the 1900’s most hats were enormous and adorned with flowers, feathers, ribbons and tulle, by the mid 1920’s women’s hair had become much shorter with the shingle cut and the cloche, which hugged the head like a helmet with a very small brim, had come into fashion. Now, after World War 1, there was suddenly such a proliferation of styles and materials that many women had to rely on the advice of milliners.

From the 1930’s to the 1950’s it could be said that New York, with its many European immigrants had become the world’s leading millinery city, with department stores such as Sacs Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman leading the way with their own millinery workrooms.

During the 1930’s and 40’s the tendency was for hats to have higher crowns with smaller brims and once it was War-Time again, it was mainly the trims which were changed with women making do with turbans made from pre-war materials.

By the 1950’s the arrival of ready-to-wear clothes was robbing the milliners of their crucial part in the world of fashion. Equally during the War many women, who had not previously worked, found themselves employed and were then loathed to lose their new-found freedom and independence. This new situation meant, however, that they no longer had so much time or energy to spend on being fashionable.

In the 1960’s the hat was once again overtaken by wigs and hairdressers, who colored, back-combed and sprayed women’s hair into exotic ‘sculptures’. Both men and women also realized that they could dress less formally and the hat was inevitably a temporary casualty. However, in the 1980’s and 90’s there has been a revival of interest in women’s millinery.

This was instigated, to a large extent, by public figures such as the late Princess of Wales’s enthusiasm for wearing hats. Many new hat designers have emerged because of this, and therefore has made the 90’s a very innovative and diverse period for hats.

Since their invention, hats have come and gone as status symbols, uniforms and fashion statements as well as being functional sports and protective headgear.

There are still, and presumably always will be, two basic styles – brimmed and brimless – and two basic forms – caps and hats. Milliners take these shapes and with the aid of many trims and details, create a never-ending range of hats for men and women.