The Fall of the Hat, and the Significance of Hat’s in Today’s Culture

Whilst looking through files on an old laptop recently, I came across, my Critical Study essay that I wrote as part of my HNC in Millinery at Kensington and Chelsea college. Dated as being written January 2006! The content of this essay still fascinates me and so I thought I would share it with the world!

N.B. I have not edited the content of this essay at all since it was written, so some elements or views may have changed over time. Also remember that it was written by an 19 year old me!

The Fall of the Hat, and the Significance of Hat’s in Today’s Culture

Today we would generally look twice if we saw someone walking down the street wearing a formal hat.  Baseball caps, berets, flat caps, beanie hats and woolly hats and maybe the occasional trilby are the only hats that are generally considered today as ‘normal, everyday attire’ worn as a fashion statement than as a need, certainly not for wearing to the office or to show status, apart from the few trying to keep the ideal alive. But go back to less than a hundred years ago, the situation is completely different, if you weren’t wearing a hat, you would be looked at as either ‘deranged, penniless or drunk’ or having lost your hat you are swiftly on the way to buy a new one. “Sex was considered a filthy practice because people would take off their hats to do it.’

Times have changed.  I read an article from the 1940’s about a man who stepped out wearing a top hat out to the theatre, walking through the centre of London, he became very self conscious, of the fact he was wearing a top hat, the fashion had changed, everybody was wearing the fedora, he suddenly felt relief when he saw another man coming the other way, also wearing a top hat, only to find upon closer inspection it was a tramp wearing the top hat, a serious error had been made by this man to presume the top hat was still in fashion. This extract showed the importance of the hat, back in the 20th century. Since the very beginning of time, hats have come and gone as status symbols, uniforms and fashion statements as well as being functional sports and protective headgear, as well as all this, they have been documented in a wider range of situations, for a wider range of needs, in a wider range of media with far more importance than first appears.

The hat today is generally considered to have no use in everyday life, yes formal occasions, on holiday to protect you from the sun and wind or cold, but not for everyday life.  100 years ago and even less than that, they were important, for far more than to keep your head warm  You would not leave home without a hat, if not on the head then certainly tucked beneath the arm.  Hats showed social status, could be used for drawing lots, protecting the head, storing letters, money and important documentation (or in the case of Paddington Bear, marmalade sandwiches stored in his sowester), for school boys to store their illegal cigarettes in their flat caps and boaters and of course for begging, a far more dignified way of collecting money than the paper cups beggars seem to opt for today. 

Some hats have even been used to ward off evil spirits, such as the voodoo hat that primitive man made from woven black and cream straw woven to create the image of the ancient water sign, allegedly evil spirits can’t pass through water.  It has even been known for top hats to be used as advertising space, making use of the large blank area that they supply.  From the end of the War of Roses to the start of the Vietnam war hats were the most prominent article of clothing on a mans body.  Today the most common use for hats, apart from to wear them, is used by strippers, who use hats to strategically cover themselves, well some do say ‘a hat makes a gentleman’!

Paddington Bear in his famous hat

The Paddington bear example shows how the importance of the hat in the past, still comes through in today’s society.  We all remember Paddington Bear’s top hat.  Paddington bear was written in 1958, towards the end of the previous decades, in which hats were vital to any man’s wardrobe, but it shows that some people still couldn’t do without their hats.  After the time when you couldn’t leave the house without a hat, it had become security and a need for some, we’ve all seen Abraham Lincoln’s famous stove pipe, Tommy Cooper’s fez and Laurel and Hardy’s escapades with their bowler hats, in their comic film ‘Hats Off’, where hats were sat on by fat ladies, blown away and grabbed by the brim and pulled over the shoulders. And what would a magician make a rabbit appear from without his top hat?  To these people, their hats were part of their personality, without their hats, who knows if they would have achieved what they did.  Isabella Blow, renowned for wearing Philip Treacy’s hats, but would she be where she is today without the publicity surrounding her and his hats, and what about Philip Treacy, where would he be if they had never met and she hadn’t commissioned him to make her hats?

A flier advertising an exhibition of Isabella Blow’s Hats by Philip Treacy

Many everyday sayings we use without thinking of its meaning, derive from the era of the hat, with phrases outlasting the practices that inspired them, such as the toasts ‘hats off’, ‘old hat’, ‘feather in your cap’ implying you are rich enough to be able to pay for expensive feather plumes to put in your hat. And of course ‘at the drop of a hat’ and ‘as mad as a hatter’ immortalised in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll.  The Mad Hatter was given his name for a reason, hatters did, indeed, go mad.  They inhaled fumes from the mercury that was part of the process of making felt hats.  The violent twitching and derangement of hat makers were the symptoms of a brain disorder, people made fun of affected hat makers, often treating them as drunkards, as for sometime, the condition was unrecognized.  In America, the condition was called the “Danbury shakes.” (Danbury, Connecticut, was a hat making center.)

The Mad Hatters Tea Party, from Lewis Carrolls 1865 book ‘The adventures of Alice in wonderland’ the Mad Hatter’s Wellington style hat is out of date, to emphasise it’s absurdity.

Hats have also inspired other literature, Lord Dunsany’s 1914 play ‘The Lost Silk Hat’ the title itself suggesting problems that could be caused if you lost your hat, enough for a whole play to be written about it!  The character that lost his hat proclaiming ‘I can’t be seen in the streets like this!’ Charles Dickens in Great Expectations begins describing a man by noting that he was hatless. Also in ‘Pickwick Papers’ he wrote ‘There are very few moments in a mans existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress or meets with so little charitable consideration as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.’ Noting the shame brought on a man when losing his hat in a gust of wind, or having it picked form his head. Chasing after someone else’s hat was seen as benevolent, chasing after your own was seen as humiliation!  Of course how can we forget Dr. Zeuss and his book ‘The Cat in the Hat’, if the cat hadn’t had its hat it could have been any other cat, the hat gives the cat its character. In Roahl Dahl’s story, Matilda, a hat is stuck to her fathers head with superglue, requiring it to be cut off, leaving the hat band firmly attached; this escapade with a hat takes up a whole chapter of the book. And the sorting hat in Harry Potter, is an integral part of Hogwarts, without it the students may not be put in the houses they are destined to be in.

Songs have been written about hats ‘Where Did You Get That Hat?’ started as a mocking question to those wearing out dated or shabby hats, and turned into a comic song for the first half of the last century.  Paul Young’s nostalgic song ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home’) again emphasises the importance of the hat in a far gone society.  And the problems involved in wearing hats is demonstrated in the 1907 song ‘The Hat that Sailed Away’ by E.E. Harder, where his hat blows away whilst tipping it to great a woman.

Sigmund Freud has written about having nightmares about losing his hat, leading him to decide that it was ‘quite unquestionable’ that hats were ‘phallic objects’, his reasons for this were that he did not view dreams as fears but as a feeling of ‘not being able to do anything’ as the rescue of a hat would be a situation that would demand immediate attention and action. A Film about this theory has been made by the Coen Brothers called Millers Crossing, a gangster film about a man who has nightmares about losing his hat and the important significance of it, and how it affects him starring Gabriel Byrne.

Hats were not only there to keep the head warm and distinguish between the classes, but some people had the great idea of making money out of the storage of hats at restaurants and theatres employing check girls to look after the hats during these occasions in return for a small tip, a profession which was one of the only ways for women to earn money at the times, aside from prostitution. unfortunately the tips given to the girls for there duties went to the owners, not the girls, meaning they were only given a basic wage until the laws were changed and the girls had rights to be able to keep there own tips. Biographies have been written about some famous hat check girls, Renee Carroll was one who worked as a check girl for over 20 years and was well known in New York was given a tip of  a thousand dollars one night, allowing her to ‘live in Central Park and wear mink’, all thanks to hats. A Film has also been made about her called ‘Hat Check Girl’ and there has also been a Broadway musical called ‘Bright Lights’.

President Kennedy has often been blamed for the demise of the hat, not often wearing one himself, and being rumoured not to have worn a hat for his inauguration ceremony – he did in fact keep tradition and wear a silk topper at this occasion. But on other occasions such as visiting Texas refused to have his picture taken whilst wearing a Stetson he was given, and many other similar times, lead to a build up of rumours as to why the president refused to wear a hat. Kennedy was once quoted saying ‘A hat was one more thing to keep track of and not lose, or leave behind, it was just easier not to wear one.’ People have a tendency to follow their leaders, if the President was not wearing a hat then why should they.  In fact the demise of the hat started as early as the 1920’s, not, from the 1960’s at the time of Kennedy.  

The shapes of hats started to change with each season, previously hats had to be changed several time a day to fit in with tradition, but after the Vietnam War when the soldiers returned, they found it hard to return to constantly wearing the formal hats. Before the war, hats were so important to society that in the U.S. it has been known for people to be shot for wearing a straw hat out of season, or for not wearing one at all.

 The New York Times in 1864 described soldiers in a prison exchange ‘men looking like living skeletons, almost naked, shoeless, hatless and spiritless, society shall have to go through a transformation before going hatless can be a good thing.’  One book printed in 1929 on the psychology of dress declared about hats that ‘not one man in 10000 would risk being the butt of ridicule by failing to conform’.

Reasons that the hats really fell from glory included the fact that in the 1960’s, hairstyles changed, beehive hairstyles did not allow for hats to be worn, the lifestyle became free, teenagers emerged, not wishing to dress as their parents, but wanting to develop their own styles, which did not include the formal headwear of their parents era. There had also been rumours for years that hats encouraged baldness and cut off the blood supply to the brain, although at the time this not been proven, it gave people and excuse to change the fashions and traditional dress. Later, E.J. Kahn undertook a survey, finding that people who wear hats have fewer bacteria on there heads than those don’t wear hats, deeming the baldness rumour as incorrect.  The invention of the motor car, made hats, far less necessary to protect people from the elements, as they were outside for less time, also many of the hats would not fit on a head inside an automobile, especially the toppers, they were far to high to fit in such contraptions. Materials used in making hats such as spartre has risen in price dramatically, and is therefore no longer available for most milliners to be able to afford to make one off blocks with, meaning that wooden locks have to be carved to shape instead, a costly and time consuming exercise, that can only really be used if the design shape can be used over and over again, in order to make it cost effective.

There was a thriving second hand hat trade and pawning of hats in the early part of the 20th century. hats such as the topper, bowlers and homburgs were traditionally made from beaver, which as a result of the high demand for hats, became very expensive, and a lot of money could be made from selling one, as well as meaning that the less well off would only be able to afford second hand hats.  Later the hats, especially top hats, were made from silk, much less expensive and easier to maintain, the beaver hats would require constant brushing to restore its lustre, bringing the price down, and also the demand for the beaver hats decrease. Today Millinery blocks, hat Stands and hat boxes as well as vintage hats can be found in many antique stores, many are now collectable items, so can be hard to come across and the prices for them are steep.

A traditional silk top hat with original leather hat box

‘Brushing Pa’s new hat.’

Punch cartoon, 1860’s, the toppers plush needed frequent brushing to restore its silken luster.

Hats were such an important part of every day life, that they changed shape in accordance to needs rather than, to not be worn at all.  The collapsible spring loaded opera hat was designed so that the hat could be flattened and put away when not needed, or to allow the person behind to see!  Seats in theatres were also altered at a point to include shelves beneath the seats to store the hats, rather than to have to hold them on the lap throughout the shows.  Top hats grew in size up to 10 inches high, down to 4 inches depending on the fashion of the time. Later on in 1951 Lee Hats introduced a hat that could be rolled up and put in the pocket. Boys, when reaching manhood were often given a hat, with a brim to celebrate there coming of age, to make them a man, before this point boys would only have worn caps.

‘Gentlemen around town’ in the 19th century and Royal Ascot with its strict dress code, still in place today, the top hat and tails.

But even in their heyday, hats were not always, the best attire.  Lugging around hat boxes of hats for each occasion of the day was a hassle, they were often uncomfortable, top hats not fitting through doorways was an everyday problem, men would be beaten and robbed for their hats if they had gold or feather trims.  Why, Nelson may not have died at the battle of Trafalgar if the diamond brooch on his hat had not sparkled in the light, causing him to be seen and shot dead in his moment of glory.  But then again, Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square would not be the same recognisable structure that it is today had it not been topped off with his iconic bi-corn.

In Ephesians 6 it is stated, to wear ‘the helmet of salvation…..which is the word of God’. Some people have tried to use this quote to prove that the reasons we wear hats is to reach our moral and spiritual centre, to bring us close to God, as, evidently God approved of head gear, in the past Jews considered hair to be a focal point of eroticism and mystic power, displaying wantonness in women and vanity in men, so the showing hair was seen as mysterious demonic powers out to do man harm, so hair was covered in religious practices to dispel the demonic powers as they worshipped god. ‘And all the people that were with him covered every man his head.’ 2 Samuel 15:30.

The wearing of the hat is a very expressive affair; they can be tilted for a younger cockier look, removed as a mark of respect, raised to acknowledge another, tilted forward by the brim as a word of thanks, or as a departing acknowledgement, clapped onto the head to express animosity.  In fact there is a whole sign language, known only to the wearers of the hats.  Hat wearers seem to be able to converse and understand whole conversations, without the use of words, just by adjusting their hats.  If you watch the background to a film, set between 1850 and 1950, you may see this theory in practice, especially in silent movies. The trilby with its two indents on the front was developed as a need for men to remove their hats with ease, holding it between the forefinger and thumb, in order to make full use of ‘hat sign language’.  Hats can instill an air of power and aggression, comic hats can make even the most serious of persons take on a new character, fashion historian James Laver states that ‘ the very mood of our souls are bound up with the kind of headgear we choose or do not choose.’  Doesn’t this put rather a lot of pressure on the hat?

Hats have been used for centuries to distinguish between the social classes.   Back in ancient times, the slaves would be bald, the administrators and soldiers helmeted and the kings would walk about in crowns of gold, everyone else in between used their hats to establish their spots in the pecking order of society. Hats distinguish between cultures, Indian headdress, Stetsons, cork hats, tam-o’shanter’s all give us a clear indicators of where the wearers roots are, traditionally, anyone form other cultures would not have even thought of wearing a hat from another culture, but today they are either worn as fashion articles or as fancy dress. They also are used to distinguish between armies and military groups, in the past nurses always wore hats to distinguish between the hospitals they worked at. Today hats are also used to show who authority is, to distinguish the general public, from the authority of the event, such as the police, traffic police, firemen, Sailors, the Navy, ushers and bishops.

Although hats today are not an important part of everyday life today, the only time you would see everyone in one place wearing a hat, or with a hat in their possession, being at Royal Ascot, or a similar event.  There have been many claims over the past years that there will be a revival in hats.  We are yet to see this be realised and it is highly doubtful that any revival would result in the statutory wearing of hats that was seen at the turn of the 19th century.

 It is clear that they have greatly influenced our culture and traditions. The correct hats are still worn at traditional ceremonies, but not as everyday apparel.  The hat is within our vocabulary, and seems not to want to budge.  The hat related sayings are used daily by thousands of people, the songs are sung, people collecting for charity hold out their hats, and hats are removed at the correct points for respect.  Paintings and pictures, cartoons and illustrations, use hats as main visual points.  Hats provide an instant recognition of time period, status and situation.  Hats are often today an easy target for being the butt of jokes, such as in Andy Capp’s, Daily Express cartoon strip, putting an arm through the top of a hat and other frivolous actions. The destruction of the hat is a very popular comic gag.  Today women tend to wear more hats than men.  At special occasions it allows them to become the centre of attention in an outrageous design.  Hats are one of the most noticeable items of dress and certainly the most remembered’.

 I conducted a small experiment to see how many times in one day hats cropped up in everyday life, in the newspaper, a cartoon strip and an article on Ascot Races, overhearing a passer saying ‘well done, hats off, if you think you can do it’ to his companion, babysitting and having to watch ‘The Cat in the Hat’.  Seeing numerous old pictures in a pub from the 1920’s of gentlemen in hats, I saw a beggar using a flat cap to collect his money, and a friend even said ‘those Mexicans are weird; they eat chilli and wear those silly hats’.  All in all hats cropped up eight times in one day. So although hats are not worn in the same way they once were, and generally go unnoticed they are most certainly not about to be forgotten, they are an integral and significant part of our culture, history and of the present day.