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: