Protection, status, and vanity have always been the prime reasons for wearing hats. A hat is much more than a piece of clothing; it is a cerebral fashion accessory that can mark personality, social etiquette, and lifestyle. The twenty-first century is a relatively hat-less age, with the exception of the baseball cap and modern hoods. This might be just a passing fad, but it is socially as significant as trends of the previous era, when men wore proper hats all the time.
There have been hatless periods in history before. Eighteenth-century wigs replaced hats and coiffeurs eclipsed the hatter, but the nineteenth century dictated hats for men again with many important styles still remembered with nostalgia. Post-World War I democratic ideologies, modern infrastructure, and, most importantly of all, the car, all caused the gradual demise of hats. World War II changed social values even more, resulting in youth’s imperative right of wanting to look radically different from the previous generation. Yet fashion’s pendulum never ceases to swing, and there might well be a time in the future when fashion will demand that heads need to be covered again. Why the fashion for wearing or not wearing a hat fluctuates at different times can only be explained with hindsight of historical and social developments.
The ancient Romans lived in a hatless age but showed their status by wearing metal fillets over their brows. The exceptions were military helmets, worn over a leather cap and held in place by a chinstrap. Northern European tribes wore leather caps before the Roman occupation. An eight-section leather cap, said to be over 2,000 years old, is preserved at the National Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, which must be the oldest existing man’s hat in history.
When Christianity arrived in Europe, the church demanded that the body be covered up with a hooded cloak called bardocucullus. Faces were overshadowed by all kinds of hoods as well as by beards, the fashion in England until the Norman conquests over the Saxons in 1066. The French invasion imposed a fashion for clean-shaven faces and short hair, which was often covered by a coif, a close-fitted linen cap, tied under the chin. A variation was the phrygian cap, a soft, close-fitting and pointed hat, inspired by the Phoenician fashion, brought into Europe by traders from the Mediterranean.
Early medieval pointed hoods and capes merged into gorgets (a hood and neckpiece) and coif-de-maille (a metal chain-mail hood). Professional people, such as doctors, wore richly decorated round skullcaps. The first hats with brims, made of straw or felt, were utilitarian and worn by field laborers, shading their eyes from the sun and rain. A soft linen coif, tied under the chin was usually worn underneath a hat, thus keeping long hair in place. In the late thirteenth century, the chapeau a bec, a brimmed hat, cocked into a beak shape pointing to the front, became the fashion for young men and was also always worn over a coif. Later on, the chapeau de fer, a divergence from the closed metal helmet, provided shade and protection with its cap, brim, and chinstrap.
Headwear became more eccentric in the fourteenth century, with meek and humble hoods developing ever-longer and longer drooping points. The soft lengthy tubes, worn over a gorget, were called liripipes and often matched the then fashionable four- or five-piece outfits. The tube could be up to two feet in length with a long ribbon added, which could be wound around the head in infinite variety. The coif, the gorget, and the liripipe were collectively called the chaperon. A round, stuffed band, called a rondelet, was sometimes added by fashionable jongleurs, the wandering musicians and medieval trendsetters. Further variations were achieved by rolling the gorget up over the forehead or by winding the liripipe around the head, creating a kind of turban style. Added to this complicated arrangement could be a felt bycock hat, a style worn by men and women, which allowed even more variations by splitting or slashing the brims, or by wearing the hat back to front. Diversification seemed infinite with soft tammy berets worn over coifs or draped over brims. Materials varied from robust leather and felt to furs and precious silk velvets in lush colors, matching or contrasting the extravagant medieval outfits.
Hoods and gorgets for warmth continued into the fifteenth century, with hat shapes adding personal identity. Occasionally, the soft gorget was replaced by a houppeland, a stiff collar cradling the head and tucked under the liripipe or rondelet at the back of the head. The coif was relegated to be worn as a nightcap called cuffie, cappeline, benducci, or bendoni and replaced by close-fitting lined linen caps without chinstraps. Worn under expensive velour or plush hats, this was a practical solution for keeping the inside of a hat clean from sweat and grease. As hoods and liripipes could not be taken off in greetings, they had to be raised by two fingers while bowing, a gesture called 11 riverenza di cappuccino.” The Vatican influenced social etiquette and with it men’s fashion. The becca replaced the liripipe and became a social attribute with its long and flat band, hanging down over the right shoulder, draped over the chest, or tucked into the belt. To greet a lady, a man had to raise his hat with his right hand, while holding the streamers of the becca with his left. The becca’s practical advantage was in securing the hat when it was slung over a man’s shoulder, a custom still used on ceremonial robes of the Order of the Garter.
Men’s fashion changed from a slim, tall medieval silhouette to a short, stocky look in the sixteenth century, established in England by King Henry VEIL Flat, wide berets complimented the style best. Worn straight or at an angle with six- or eight-sided stiff brims underneath, they were known as “bonetes.” Brimmed hats developed into quite flamboyant styles, generally called “beavers” after the fur used for felting. These felt hats were often trimmed with real fur, which was also used for rondelets and under brims.
Plumes of swan feathers and ornamental brooches, gold plaques and crests enhanced a look of prosperity. The coif changed to the caul, a wide-netted snood to be worn under the hat or inside the house. Young men liked hoods with very long points down to the floor, which could be wound around the head. Prosperous merchants wore cushion hats, stuffed berets with voluminous rondelets, while older men preferred high, flat birettas, usually in bright scarlet red.
During the Elizabethan era, men’s hats changed to capotains, brims with high crowns, lavishly decorated with gold and silver braids, Vandyke lace, as well as exotic plumes from the newly discovered Americas. In England, all men above the age of six had to wear a hat by law. This court edict was proclaimed in order to foster the hat trade.
In the seventeenth century, hats diversified even more extravagantly. Wide cocked-up brims with diamond studded ostrich feathers drooping over the edges were the fashion for the new romantic male idol, “the cavalier,” an image immortalized in numerous paintings. The cavalier’s beaver hat, posed on long, flowing love locks was the perfection of elegance, a peacock look, that took time and wealth to perfect, which might possibly have been the reason why wigs came into fashion. Wearing a periwig, made of human or of horse hair under one’s hat, was a simpler, less time-consuming option, allowing even more variations in color and style. The perfect new stylish hat was the tricorn, which like wigs was in fashion up to the end of the eighteenth century. An individual note was achieved by wearing the hat either pointing to the front or to the side and by adding different decorations like feather fringes and cockades; very important in all military headwear.
Fashion in the eighteenth century was dominated by hair and wigs leaving hats to be carried in the hand and raised in greetings rather than worn. Coiffeurs created wigs of great varieties, powdered toupees or center-parted curls with queues and pigtails hanging down at the back. The tricorn was still worn, but changed shape by being flattened or “pinched” at the front, which was a foretaste to the two-cornered “bycocked” hat. Beaver fur, (castor in French) was still used as the raw material for felting, but was often mixed for economical reasons with rabbit fur and then called “demi-castors.” Both tricorns and elaborate wigs lost their appeal at the end of the century. European fashion was influenced by the French Revolution, when men shedded notions of aristocracy in favor of egalitarianism. Round, small-brimmed and light-colored felt hats, trimmed with simple bands and buckles, worn over natural-colored hair were “de rigueur.”
Curiously, the start of the nineteenth century heralded a new age for men’s hats in the Western world, which reached its zenith at the turn of the twentieth century, when no gentleman would ever step out of his house without wearing a hat. Men’s clothing was dictated by sobriety and egalitarianism and hats fulfilled an important role in subtly marking differentials, personal and professional ones, as well as social class distinction. Top hats, bowlers, derbies, boaters, fedoras, panamas, and cloth caps were all created during this century and lasted well into the twentieth century.
The black silk topper was the first in line. Developed from the high felt stovepipe hat, it became the hat worn by postrevolution aristocracy and an emblem of conservative capitalism. Its origins were far less formal. Like many other hats in history, the topper, also known as “chapeau haut de forme,” was a French design, at first causing outrage and dismay in London in the 1790s. According to the Mayfair Gazette, this new tall black hat “frightened people, made children cry, and dogs bark.” John Heatherington, the London haberdasher who dared to wear it, was arrested and charged with “inciting the breach of the peace.” Despite this turbulent beginning, the high black hat was gradually adopted by gentlemen of distinction in the West.
The construction and making of the high topper was innovative, too. The hat was not shaped in beaver felt but constructed from stiffened calico, which was covered with silk plush fabric and brushed around repeatedly until smooth and shiny. Mercury was used to enhance the hat’s blackness and was later discovered to cause mental disorder, hence the popular term “mad as a hatter.” The height and the shape of the crown varied, the tallest being the “kite-high dandy,” with a height of 71 inches (21cm). The diameter of the flat top varied as well and with it the “waisted” shape of the chimney crown. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a collapsible version of the hat was devised, known as “chapeau claque” or “chapeau Gibus,” after its French inventor. This ingenious design could be folded flat—concertina-fashion— and sprung back into shape by the flick of the fist, thus making storage much easier.
The bowler hat, called derby in the United States, was designed in 1849 at the height of the industrial revolution in Britain. Like the top hat, it quickly became a classic wardrobe item and a quintessential badge of Eng-lishness. Named after John and William Bowler, hatters from Stockport, an industrial city in the north of England, it was to become the first mass-produced hat in history. A young English aristocrat who wanted a new hunting hat ordered the original design. Lock and Company, hatters of St. James’s in London, since 1676, had been given a brief to supply a brown, round-crowned felt hat, practical and hard wearing, but also dashing and modern. Most importantly, the hat was to be hard and protective as it was to be used for riding. The making of felt hats was traditionally done by small factories in South London, who experimented with stiffening of felt in various ways. A substance called shellac was perfected by mixing a dark treacle-like extract from a parasite insect found in Southeast Asia with methylated spirit. The felt hoods were manually rolled and beaten in the hot and steaming mixture, before being blocked and dried on wooden hat blocks. The procedure was arduous and dirty, but the key to mass production, making the hat affordable to the middle-classes.
The industrial revolution in Britain and all over Western Europe brought important social changes and a shift from agriculture to factories. Factories needed not only workers but also managers, bookkeepers, and accountants, all new middle-class men who traveled on the newly invented railways wearing black bowler or “iron hats.” With its sturdy, solid look the hat was the perfect fashion and style accessory for social climbers in Victorian Britain: a smart, discreet hat that turned every man into a gentleman. The earl of Derby introduced the hat to the United States, hence the name given to it there.
The bowler held its place in fashion for over one hundred years, its distinctive silhouette making it the most widely recognized hat image in history. The bowler hat was immortalized in art, comedy, and literature, and it is still exploited in advertising today. Charlie Chaplin made the hat famous in his satiric silent films of the early 1920s, a comedy act, which was followed by Laurel and Hardy a few years later. Samuel Beckett put bowler hats on the tramps in his famous play, Waiting for Godot (“He can’t think without his hat,” says one of the characters.) Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera features bowler hats and Stanley Kubrick’s anarchist in Clockwork Orange also wears a bowler. René Magritte’s paintings are famous because of the bowler hats on his surrealistic figures. Sculpture has immortalized the hat’s image too, in a famous bronze statue with a bowler hat called The Man in the Open Air by Ellie Nadelman at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It epitomizes the link between the Old and the New World, the transition between convention and modernity.
During the early twentieth century, a black bowler hat became synonymous with financial affairs and was the headwear for German businessmen during the years of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), but the Nazi regime branded it “Judenstahlhelm,” outlawed it, and used it in anti-Semitic propaganda. The bowler remained the recognizable attire of bankers in the City of London until the 1970s and is still worn by a few city lawyers today.
The homburg was a German hat, similar to the bowler, but with a higher and lightly dented crown and is named after its city of origin. It is said that King Edward VII of Britain saw the hat worn by his German cousin Kaiser William and thus started the fashion in England. British politicians like Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden also liked to wear this hat. The American fedora and the slightly smaller British version, the trilby, are felt hats with dented crowns and brims turned up at the back, and down at the front, shading the eyes. Soft felt hats brought a more casual look to men’s fashion, which had changed from black frock coats to suits and raincoats. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fedora helped to change the image of his presidency after the assassination of President McKinley, who had always worn a black top hat. The soft felt trilby was originally a bohemian hat, worn by artists and modern thinkers who wanted to make a stand against the old conservative values of the previous century. In the 1930s and 1940s the hat took on a gangster role in the United States, which was exploited by many moviemakers and film stars. It was also the hat worn by newspapermen, crime reporters, and Mafia bosses, whose shady expressions were obscured beneath the stylish brim.
The panama hat was the summer hat for the modern man around the turn of the twentieth century. The hat was woven using the finest jipijapas straw, flexible enough to be rolled into a narrow tube for packaging and transportation. Panamas were handwoven in Ecuador and shipped through the Panama Canal, which gave the hat its name. Growing and preparing the straw was a lengthy procedure and so was the weaving of a hat, which could take a skilled worker up to four weeks. The finest and costliest panama hat is called a Montecristi fino-fino. With not many skilled hat weavers left in Ecuador, this hat has become a collector’s item. Cheaper versions and paper panamas are very popular and commercially mass-produced in many other countries today.
The boater was another popular straw hat of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The straw was plaited, sewn in a spiral, stiffened and blocked hard into its distinct shape of a flat crown and stiff flat brim. The design of the boater is derived from the shape of sailor’s hats and suited to the debonair informal look men liked around the turn of the twentieth century.
The Stetson is a truly American hat, stylish, protective, and unmistakably masculine; a hat of the prairie and the most treasured possession of a cowboy, it evokes silver-screen bravery and passion of the Wild West. Its origins are in Philadelphia, where John Batterson Stetson established his first hat factory in the1880s, which was to grow into one of the great American enterprises of the twentieth century. Having learned the principles of hat making from his father, John Stetson first sought fame and fortune by trekking 750 miles to the west, and felting and making hats by the campfire for his fellow travelers. He did not find gold, but his skills and tenacity helped him build the largest hat empire in the world. The making of a modern Stetson is still based on the old techniques of felting and blocking, requiring thirteen different stages in production, thus making the hat the costliest item of a rancher’s clothing. The image of the battered cowboy hat has given way to a range of stylish models for Texan businessmen, topped by the famous “Boss of the Plains,” as worn by J.R. of the famous 1980s TV series Dallas.
Cloth caps are flat hats with visors traditionally cut and sewn from woolen cloth. The image of the cap was a modest, practical one in keeping with a workingman’s life. The saying, “cap in hand,” illustrates the social position of the cap—as does the Russian poet Alexander Blok’s verse, “Caps tilted, fag drooping, everyone looks like a jailbird on the run.” The cap, like other hats, changed its image and is worn in the early 2000s by wealthy gentlemen when shooting grouse or playing golf rather than by laborers going to work at a factory. Capmakers or cappers, also made livery caps, military caps, and various styles for sports caps, like the baseball cap, which has become the universal hat of youth culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Finally, the beret, which was in existence long before the twentieth century, has evolved from a French Pyrenean shepherd’s hat to the most widely worn military hat in the world. The colors and badges may vary, but the beret is now a universal soldier’s hat as well as the favorite hat of revolutionary guerrilla groups. A French mountain regiment, les chasseurs alpines always wore dark red berets and presented one to the British Field Marshal Montgomery after World War I. He wore this beret, called “tarte alpine” during his command of the British forces during World War II.
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Hopkins, Susie. The Century of Hats. London: Aurum Press, 1999.
McDowell, Colin. Hats, Status, Style and Glamour. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1992.
Robinson, Fred Miller. The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Whitbourn, Frank. Mr. Lock of St. James’s Street. London: Frank Heinemann Ltd., 1971.