A Hat History
The Kentucky Derby, starting out of the gate this year on May 7, may be the absolute topper when it comes to events encouraging extravagant and creative headdresses. But hats of all kinds have been shielding our noggins since at least 3200 B.C., and, while the ancient Egyptians probably weren’t wearing giant amoebas on their heads while they constructed the pyramids, they did don conical straw hats to protect themselves from the elements.
Hats were originally designed for warmth or as protection from the sun, rain, and the occasional wayward bird, and it wasn’t until much later in history that hats were seen as a fashion accessory. Around the 1500s, structured hats — hats with shapes that were meant to accentuate facial features — became fashionable. Warm, fuzzy hat feelings continued to increase until the 1890s when hat wearing, especially in America, was at its peak.
Before the invention of automobiles, horse and buggy travel necessitated the use of hats to protect travelers from kicked up stones, dirt, and inclement weather. And even when cars became available, the first cars didn’t have roofs or even hoods, so substantial head covering was still imperative.
Once car lids were permanently parked in the public domain, hat wearing was no longer as essential. But their popularity persisted and even influenced the automobile form. For example, the taxis in London were purposely tall in order to accommodate the towering hats gentlemen passengers were wearing at that time.
While head protection was no longer as necessary, covering one’s hair was actually needed from a purely cosmetic reason. Our hat-wearing relatives from days gone by did not practice the best of head hygiene. A hundred years ago, people typically washed their hair only once a month — sometimes less — and even as late as the 1950s, hair washing was a once-a-week occurrence. This was an unfortunate era of really bad hair days, and while hats probably didn’t do much to cover the odor, they did at least make people look better in their photographs.
Aside from concealing some pretty icky unwashed hair, hats were also used to signify the social status of the wearer. Top hats were worn by middle and upper classes while the lower classes tended to wear soft felt or straw hats. Covering one’s head was also seen as a sign of respect — in 1571, Queen Elizabeth I passed a law that required everyone over the age of 7 to wear hats on Sundays.
Particular headpieces have always played a role in different sorts of careers. When baseball was first introduced to the public in 1876, umpires wore top hats to indicate the importance of their job. White chef hats were used to show the rank of the cook — the taller the hat, the higher the rank — and the number of pleats represented the number of techniques a chef had mastered. Even today, the color of the hard hat on a construction site represents the particular job of the wearer, with white hard hats being worn by supervisors, green by inspectors, and yellow by the general laborers.
And what would a professional magician be if he or she couldn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat? The first time that happened was at a French magic show in 1814, and the audience must have thought the performer was mad as a hatter. Hopefully he was not, however, because the phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from the propensity of 18th century milliners — people who make hats — to suffer from dementia due to exposure from mercury nitrite, a toxic substance that was once used in hat felt. And though the disease might have made the poor milliners act as though they were unintelligent, they would not have worn dunce caps back then. The original dunce caps were thought to funnel wisdom from God, and it was not until the 19th century that they became a cruel and humiliating symbol of stupidity.
Hat wearing among the American population waned immediately after World War I when returning soldiers didn’t want to wear anything that reminded them of a uniform, including hats. But the real death of fashionable headwear came in the 1960s.
Some blame the demise of the hat on President John F. Kennedy, who threw his hat in the ring for his campaign but then became the first U.S. president not to wear a hat to his own inauguration. But the more likely reason for those hat-wearing Camelot years coming to a close is that Americans cleaned up their act, began shampooing almost daily, and hair, rather than hats, became the new “thing.”
Beehives were popular, then the “bob,” and then hippies started growing out their hair as a way of protesting social norms. And then — seemingly at the drop of a hat — fashionable headwear was out. No one wanted to cover all of those beautifully styled tresses or wild-and-free-flowing locks with a hat.
Today, hats are primarily ornamental, although some houses of worship have hat requirements and/or traditions. Certain Jewish synagogues require only men to cover their heads, while others require both men and women to wear a hat. In the African American culture, hats at church are a traditional way of celebrating God and his blessings. The Sunday Church Hat, with its abundance of flowers, ribbons, and bows, dates back centuries.
While a real modern-day resurgence has not occurred in everyday stylistic hat wearing, events such as a royal wedding or sporting events, like the Kentucky Derby, do bring hats back to the top of our collective fashion focus. And whether it is a sophisticated and prim pink pillbox or a wide brimmed green saucer with watermelon-sized flowers, every hat has a particular structure. The size and shape of each part separates the fedoras from the fascinators and determines a hat’s category:
Crown — The very top part of the hat
Top dent — Not all hats have this, but if one does, it is not an accidental indentation. The size and shape of the dent is very significant in hat categorizing.
Decoration — Ornamentation may be put on the original hat structure to give it a bit more flair. Go crazy, Kentucky Derby fans!
Brim — The material that circles the bottom ridge of the crown
Under brim — Material that is on the bottom part of the brim to give it structure
Inner lining — Besides protecting the material of the crown, it can also be structured to give the hat its unique shape.
Once the hat elements are mastered, put on your thinking cap to determine which type of hat fits your particular style:
Fascinators and Fascinator Hats — The big unique beauties seen at royal functions and the Kentucky Derby. A fascinator requires a clip and may not cover the entire head. Princess Beatrice, elder daughter of Prince Andrew, is known to be especially creative with this fashion statement, the most famous of which was worn at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. A fascinator hat is larger than a fascinator and needs no clip to stay put. They can range in decoration from the demure church hats to those outrageously ornate Kentucky-Derby-worthy confections.
Wide Brim Hat — Also known as big brim, floppy, or church hats. This is a catch-all phrase for many different sorts of headwear, but all sport the requisite wide brim surrounding the crown.
Pillbox Hat — The exact opposite of a wide-brimmed hat. There is no brim, the sides are straight and upright, and the crown is flat. Originally worn by Roman soldiers, they were brought back into fashion in the 1930s. Unquestionably, the most iconic of pillbox hats was worn by Jackie Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas.
Cloche Hat — From the French word for bell, this is a close-fitting hat that sits low on the forehead, with a short brim and a bit of a flare at the bottom. Usually worn by women, and often called church hats, these were immortalized by the flappers in the 1920s and made a comeback with Downton Abbey inspired outfits. They are not to be confused with bucket hats, which are usually made of canvas and were originally worn by fishermen; they enjoyed a high moment in fashion as an updated version of the cloche hat in the mid-’90s.
Fedoras — The hat that looks like a hat. Other styles of hats are typically mistaken for a fedora, but to be the real deal, it must have a teardrop shaped indent on the crown with two pinches on the side. It usually has a soft brim about 2½ inches wide that turns up slightly in the back and slightly down in the front. It is most often thought of as a man’s hat but can be worn by women as well; in fact, it got its name from an 1882 play in which Sarah Bernhardt portrayed a hat-wearing female character named, yes, Fédora. Jennifer Aniston, Adele, Brad Pitt, and Justin Timberlake have all been spotted wearing fedoras.
Trilby Hat — Often confused with a fedora, but it has a much shorter brim that offers zero face protection and is frequently worn toward the back of the head. While it has similar fedora-like crown indentations, they tend to be less pronounced.
Homburg Hat — This semiformal hat is also frequently mistaken for a fedora, but the crown has single indentation without the characteristic pinches seen on a fedora, and the sides are bent upward. Named after a town in Germany, it was the hat President Dwight Eisenhower wore to his first inauguration and was frequently spotted on Winston Churchill’s head as well.
Bowler Hat — At last! A hat with no confusing indentation! Often known as a derby hat, it has a round, structured crown that resembles an upside-down bowl —aha! — and a narrow brim that curls at the sides. This was the hat worn by Mr. Banks throughout Mary Poppins and by Boy George throughout the ’80s. Taylor Swift, Eva Longoria, and Gillian Zinser have all been seen in bowler hats.
Skimmer Hat — Also known as a boater hat, this is the go-to hat for all barber shop quartets. Usually made of stiff straw, it has a stiff, medium-width brim.
Top Hat — A formal hat that was very popular in the early 1900s, it has a tall — typically 5 inch — cylindrical flat-topped crown and a slightly curved brim. While it used to be worn primarily by men, Madonna, Britney Spears, Heidi Klum, and Taylor Swift have all been seen in top hats.
Stovepipe Hat — This is the hat most often associated with Abraham Lincoln. While it is often mistaken for a top hat, it actually has a much taller crown — 8 inches — and the brim is flat. It looks a little like a chimney stuck on top of one’s head, thus the name.
Porkpie Hat — Also known as an English pastry hat, it was once the hat wearing choice of “hipsters.” It has an oval crown with an oval indentation and a very short small brim. Justin Timberlake, Brad Pitt, Demi Lovato, and Taylor Swift have all rocked the porkpie hat.
Gambler Hat — These are the riverboat, Rhett Butler-style hats. They have a medium brim, turned up only at the sides, and an oval crown. Beyoncé, Emma Watson, and Meghan Markle have all taken that fashion gamble with this style hat, and they all looked great.
Some hat sellers suggest you take your particular face shape into account when selecting a hat. They claim that round faces look best in hats with crowns that don’t sit too low on the forehead, while long faced ladies should reach for hats with wider brims and shorter crowns, like floppy hats or skimmers. Those with square faces are encouraged to buy hats that aren’t as structured, like cloche hats or floppy hats; heart-shaped faced girls are told to avoid any wide-brimmed hats and stick with fedoras or gambler hats; and oval faces are happy faces because they apparently look good in every style hat.
But with all due respect to hat vendors everywhere, pulling off a hat has nothing to do with your age, your size, or the shape of your face. The true secret to looking fabulous in any kind of headdress — and not one you need keep under your hat — is the right amount of attitude and heads-up confidence. Just be sure to follow basic hat etiquette — with your head held high — in order to avoid a hat mishap that might leave you slinking off, hat in hand:
• Ladies typically can wear fashion-style hats in someone’s home, at restaurants, churches, when being introduced, and while the national anthem is played, but men should remove their hats for all of these occasions.
• Both men and women can leave their hats on at athletic events, in lobbies, public buildings, and public transportation, but both sexes should remove any hat that is obstructing someone else’s view or is taking up more than his or her allotted space in crowded events. The green saucer wearing lady would need to purchase at least two seats on any bus.
• When removing your hat, hold it toward your body so that the inner lining is not visible.
• Any decoration, such as feathers or bows, should be on the left side of a man’s hat and the right side of a women’s hat.
And that is the capper on hats. While giant saucer hats sporting watermelon-sized flowers will probably only be chic at the Kentucky Derby, a resurgence of hat wearing isn’t out of the question. So, if you are longing for the day when feathered fedoras and brightly colored cloches become fashionable mainstream again, keep your hat on. It could happen.