Friday, April 30, 2010


By Polly Guerin, The Fashion Historian

Hats have always functioned as more than mere head coverings. The styles created by different civilizations also proclaimed the rank and status of the wearer. It distinguished people by degrees of social class, profession and religious order. Head gear also defined the etiquette of an era, and hats were always an important part of regional and national costume. So what became of a one’s crowning glory?


Hats were an important aspect of American and European fashion, until about the 20th century when men and women started going hatless. Today one hardly ever sees women wearing hats. Exceptions being at church services, weddings, race courses and other special events. Construction workers give us hard hats, baseball caps identify with the all-American spirit, and the beret seems to be mainstay worn by women as well as men in the private and military sectors. Millinery has a broad and ancient history.


The early Egyptians were proud of their wig headdresses. In the beginning wigs were adorned with a tasteful gold band. In time, however, this ornamentation became more elaborate and symbols of Gods emerged like ram’s horns or the sun disk. However, it took Queen Nefertiti to introduce the wide-topped crown, but other queens preferred to adopt the vulture headdress, a symbol for motherhood. To top it off the Greeks had their own take on hats.


Cretans’ hats were a lavish affair---jeweled berets and turbans; huge towering fezzes were worn at a jaunty tilt. Tall, candle-shaped crowns plopped onto wide, flat brings. By the sixth century B.C. women had a nice range of hair styles to choose from. Queens and Goddesses got to wear golden coronets or most regal of all a crescent-shaped diadem, the Stephane. To protect their coifs from the weather, Etruscan men and women might affect a tutulus, a curious pointed hat with an upturned brim. Always the fashion followers by the mid-eighth century, many women copy Charlemagne’s mother, Bertha, who wears her long hair parted in the center and held in place with two thick braids and a headband around her forehead.


When we think of the Middle Ages we picture the period as romantic but it is the era of the Crusades with men going out with snoops, hoods and a variety of hear gear. Women of importance and rank, like Eleanor of Aquitaine wear a high headdress, a pointed cone-shaped hat adorned with a view which helps her to achieve the elongated silhouette inspired by Gothic architecture.


Men have their day in the 13th century. In an era when most people were illiterate, teachers and philosophers wear square-cut caps which are fit tightly against their skulls and people start talking about “putting on their thinking cap.” Women’s pillbox-shaped caps with their attached chin straps do have some charm but Robin Hood hats with pointed visors and high crowns are in fashion. When Isabelle of Bavaria arrives in France to marry Charles VI, she brings with her outlandish millinery and women of her court sport bourrelets—wide, padded rolls, anchored on top of their hair and the towering cone shaped headdress grows to fantastic proportions. In the Renaissance, the time of Mary Queen of Scots, a veil suspended from a rigid frame was de rigueur.


In the 1670s and 1680s, women adopt a variety of hats---beautifully embroidered snoods stretch over hair buns, hoods for protection and best of all, glamorous wide-brimmed picture hats. By 1735Fashion dolls, exact replicas of fashionable French Ladies, from their headgear down to their makeup travel to the Colonies and American women of rank and wealth adopt Parisian style. However, the saga of fashion hats takes a turn for simplicity for the new settlers and the wide-brimmed bonnet carries them forward into the new frontier. In the world of fashion, women’s hats were hardly functional at all. Like the tiny cocktail hats of the 1930s that perched at angles on a woman’s head, it was pure décor of the most charming of decorative accessories. ♥

Polly Guerin honed her skills as an Accessories Editor at the trade fashion bible, Women’s Wear Daily and later taught product knowledge as professor at The Fashion Institute of Technology, where her definitive textbook and video production, Creative Fashion Presentations, is used even today. In 2009 she was a vice-president of RWA/NYC and currently serves as a board liaison. Visit her at


  1. Fun post, Polly.

    According to family lore, one of my great-great grandmothers worked in Madame Viraud's millinery shop in Paris before coming to America, and working as a hat-maker in Philadelphia at Wannamaker's. (Her name was Hortense Löwenwater Blank.)


  2. Polly your post has stirred fond memories. In the early 60's, at least once a year, my mother would bring me to a hat shop in Jersey to buy a new hat. We would spend time trying on and choosing just the right one for each of us. I still love hats.

  3. Very important post for writers of historical fiction! Those of us brought up in the current hatless era can easily forget that our characters would be wearing some sort of headpiece as a matter of course. And then there's all the details of hat usage and etiquette! I'd love to see more posts about this, Polly. Any good websites you can refer us to?