Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Muse on Creative Headwear for Women

When I heard the announcement for the Royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton I got a little excited. I don't pay much attention to the world of the paparazzi, so it wasn't the event itself that peaked my interest, it was more of a hat thing. You see women tend to wear them to important functions in England. Although it is not protocol, it is tradition. An event of this proportion was sure to inspire fantastic millinery work and THAT is what had me excited.

As the date neared, the news wires were buzzing over the royal nuptial preparations. The wedding took place before a world audience with all of the expected pomp and circumstance. The ceremony was flawless, the couple lovely and the attendees perfectly mannered, no surprises there. However, I'm not sure anyone was quite prepared for some of the astonishing head wear that was spotted in the audience of aristocrats. Personally, I was thrilled. One amazing creation after another....a cascade of sculpted curlicues, a sweeping brim arched over a fanciful whimsie, festive colors, surreal flora and haughty plumes. The show stopper by far, was a scrolling architectural number worn by Princess Beatrice and created by Phillip Treacy.
After the wedding, Beatrices hat was auctioned off and fetched a whopping $132,000 which was donated to charity. I was impressed with them all and expected there would be a strong response in the press and on the fashion blogs. I knew the more conservative crowd would probably view such adventurous design as unattractive and perhaps even inappropriate but I was surprised at the level of attack. Snide comments and banal insults flooded the gossip columns and blogs. Even the sunny yellow color of the queens tasteful chapeau came under fire. I was truly taken aback at the lack of imagination that these critics possessed until I reminded myself that extravagant and artistic headwear has been evoking strong reaction for centuries.

I decided to explore this further and learned some fascinating things that I would like to share. Please keep in mind, this is not a costume history lesson, it's a meandering muse through time. Each country and era had it's own complex range of styles and customs, I'm just stopping at some of the highlights. Having said that lets begin with the Middle Ages....

Proper decorum over most of Europe, dictated that a married women cover her head and conceal her hair. Early on nets were worn beneath simple veils that draped under the chin (think of a nuns wimple). Cloth bands were used to secure the veil to the head. For those of noble class these bands were sometimes ornamented and embellished as a sign of status. The simple fabric band became wider and was eventually stiffened to form a pill box shape, this piece came to be called a torque or toque. Those of privilege favored coronets of precious materials and flowers. The headdress began to morph into elaborate shapes and by the 15th century women’s headwear had become very intricate and quite exaggerated. There was great variety in style, from wired hoods (coifs) and even turbans but the hennin, a cone shaped or steeple headdress, is what we associate most with that period in history. The single cone hennin often had a sheer veil draped from the tip and ranged in height from 6 inches up to to three feet(!) depending on the societal position of the wearer. There were divided hennins that looked like horns and truncated hennins as well. Other styles of headdress used the hennin as a base and added wired forms and padded rolls along with embellished hair nets, my favorite is a heart shaped wonder portrayed in the illustration below. Some of these structures were terribly heavy and obviously uncomfortable to wear, some were cut high on the forehead requiring the wearer to shave and pluck the hairline. The more elaborate styles were worn by the upper class and were neither functional nor practical, they were simply exotic objects of fashion and to this day their images in painting and manuscript are a delight to behold.

The hennin from a 15th Century painting and an illustrated rendition of a royal woman in padded headress

By the 16th century towering headwear was falling out of fashion as women were allowed to show more and more of their hair and interest turned to elaborate hairstyles. Small hats, veils and pretty lace caps were popular. In my research I found an amusing tidbit on Wikipedia that is testimony to the fact that the fashion critic has been with us for some time. It seems that towards the latter part of the 16th century some of the women’s hats borrowed their styling from those worn by men. Apparently even this whisper of cross dressing was too much for some. Puritan evangelist Philip Stubbes was most disapproving and condemned the practice in his book Anatomie of Abuses (1583).

Head coverings remained relatively subdued during the 17th century. Hoods, scarves and veils were dominant and the trend for masculine styled hats, adorned with oversized plumes, continued. However the tendency towards the fantastic was not be constrained. In the 1680s the Fontage made it's debut. The Fontage- A wired lace headress from the latter 1600s

The Fontage evolved from the exquisite handmade lace veils worn by ladies of court. It began as a wired lace headdress that was created in sections or tiers which was incorporated into an elaborately curled hairdo atop the head. It started out small but soon began to grow. At it's peak in the 1690s this lacey confection had reached grand heights of 16" or more. Once again, completely impractical but lovely to look at. According to the book Costume and Fashion by James Laver, the Fontage remained in style for over twenty years despite stern disapproval from the moralists of the day who considered it an "incitement to pride". Towards the early 18th century it's popularity was on the wane but within a few decades the penchant for astounding headdress was destined to return.

By the 18th century the requirement that married women cover their hair was long past and the vogue for artistic hairstyles was in full swing. High powdered pompadours and curls took the place of the Fontage. In the 1760s a huge collapsible bonnet called the Calash was invented as a protective covering. The Calash was an amazing feat of engineering. Hoops of arched whale bone or steel were joined by shirred fabric and could be opened and closed with a cord.
Photos of two actual Calash bonnets and a satirical illustration with exaggerated example (1780 by Carrington Bowles) Bonnet photos generously supplied by Deborah Burke of

Around 1770 extreme hairstyling took on a life of it's own with Marie Antoinette at the lead. The more "simple" styles were done with padded rolls of hair piled on the head and festooned with notions and decorative items. However, the Royals and high gentry took the fad to outrageous levels. Their hair was brushed over wire structures, built up with horse hair and false curls then plastered and powdered with all manner of noxious substances. This coiffure then served as a base for fanciful objects and themed props. According to the book Dressing the Part by Fairfax P. Walkup, the final product could reach 72" high! He goes on to describe some of the more infamous creations including "a frigate in full sail atop monstrous waves of powdered hair" (La Belle Paule) and an English rendition that included "a lighted cookstove equipped with pots and pans!"
Satirical drawing aimed at the wildly embellished pompadour headresses worn by court society

Satire and caricature came swift on the heels of this monumental mode du jour. Dressing the Part (pg. 227) quotes this poem from the time.

"When he views your tresses thin,
Touched by some French Friseur,
Horsehair hemp and wool within
Garnished with a diamond skiver;
When he scents the mingled steam
Which your plastered head is rich in,
Lard and meal and clotted cream,
Can he love a walking kitchen?"


I admit that this was fashion in the extreme and an undeniable provocation for criticism, but you cannot deny what fun it must have been to witness the bizarre splendor of it all. As with all trends of frivolity, the amusement soon faded and interest began to wane. In 1789 the French Revolution snuffed all such extravagance and an era was ended.

For the first half of the 1800s caps, turbans and bonnets were the toppers of choice for women. One bonnet of note, the Poke bonnet, presented in a variety of styles often with oversized proportions which fueled the satirists of the day.
French fashion plate of the Poke bonnet and a satirical illustration

Over the last decades of the Century, bonnets lost favor to fashion hats. Aside from a run of exceedingly high crowns and beak shaped brims I didn't see much else that strayed too far outside the days realm of moderation.

The debut of the 20th Century brought back a craze for a padded pompadours. Big hair meant big hats, really big hats with wide brims and sometimes high crowns. Oversized forms require oversized trim and milliners went wild. There was a frenzy for exotic plumes and at times entire birds were used as decoration. Swaths of chiffon and clouds of net engulfed crowns and brim. Poufs and bows of wide ribbon...Flowers fruits and leaves... Milliners had been using feathers since the days of Marie Antoinette, but towards the latter part of the 1800s demand was out of control. Techniques for harvesting bird skins, wings and feathers were indescribably cruel and sparked outrage from animal lovers. In 1886 the American Ornithologist Union released an estimate that five million North American birds were being slaughtered yearly for the millinery trade. Rare species were the most costly and were worn as symbols of status. In 1896 two Boston women, Mrs. August Hemenway and Miss Mina Hall vowed to boycott bird hats and were joined by a number of their society friends (this was the beginning of the Massachusetts Audubon Society). In 1900 the Lacey act was adopted in the US to try and prohibit interstate trade of protected animals. The Weeks-McLean act was passed in 1913 prohibiting feather imports and the sale of selected species of birds. Although these efforts helped, the style continued for a few more years both in the States and Europe making poaching a lucrative business.
1901 fashion illustration from the Delineator featuring oversized hats decorated with whole birds

Hats styles went through a drastic makeover in the 1920s. The bobbed hairdo became the rage and headwear began to shrink (along with hemlines). By the end of the decade brims were nearly non existent and crowns became nothing more than scull hugging cloches, a dramatic change in a very short space of time. The 1920s experienced a style and culture revolution that shattered convention and started a roller coaster of change. 20th century fashion innovations came and went with lightning speed and so did trends in headwear, creating fertile ground for the fashion critic. During the later 30s and into the 40s surreal pillboxes perched at impossible angles (the most famous is Elsa Schiaparelli's shoe hat). The platter hat of the late 40s-50s hovered eerily over the brow. The sixties saw space age bubble toques and oversized blossoms in mutated colors. Then in the later 1960s it all came to a crashing halt. For the most part women stopped wearing hats, sure there were a few loyal hold outs but the blow to the millinery business was devastating.

Thank you again to for photos of the platter hat and the winged tilt hat. The pink bucket hat with giant flowers is from my own website :)

In my opinion the demise of hats left the world of fashion a lot less fun. How wonderful it was to see this forgotten art revived in force at the royal wedding. How refreshing that creativity was given full reign. I applaud the bravery and adventurous spirit of both the creators and the wearers of those marvelous hats and I hope that artistic headwear will one day again be an important part of fashion.

Click here to see some of the Royal Wedding Hats.


  1. What a wonderful walk through the history of hats! I was especially delighted to hear about the outrageous hairstyles popularized by Marie Antoinette and the "walking kitchens" she inspired. It is so interesting the lengths people have gone to for the sake of fashion, and it's a shame more people don't take those types of risks these days. I agree that this is what made the royal wedding so much fun! Hopefully with Kate Middleton in the news we'll start to see more of that.

  2. How fascinating! A 72 inch hat would be great. Bring on the hats!

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