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Hats, A Love Story
By Terry McCormick

The decline of Western civilzation, expected any day now, is explained in various ways by different people. Decadence, sex, violence, drugs, and so forth, all get blamed. In my opinion, the obvious answer is the decline of the hat. Even the 1970's, for heavens sake, had the Annie Hall hat for women and the baseball cap for men! However, this article is intended as practical information about dating vintage hats, not a treatise on the decline and fall of the West. You'll have to wait for my memoirs for that.

Pictures contemporary to the period are extremely helpful in dating hats; including not only fashion magazines, which tend to be more extreme than the everyday sort of hat that we actually encounter, but also mail order catalogues, middle of the road women's magazines, and photographs. General costume books usually have some reference to hats of the periods as well. It's at least as important to get your hands on some hats from each era and see how they look up close. Occasionally a style, the turban is a good example, will appear in widely different time periods; so being familiar with how age affects the fabrics is critical in dating a hat accurately.

Some hats can be definitely placed in a time period; however, be wary, because there were always hats around that defied the current fashion. Since hats began disappearing between the 1940's and 60's (WWII was amajor factor in this disaster), most of us have grown up with only a passing understanding of ho w a hat completes a total fashion look. But at one time no look was complete without a hat; and hats were designed with very specific lines in mind. It's impossible to confuse the enormous, lavishly trimmed hats of the early and mid teens, which complemented the large bosomed, fussy styles of that period; with the sleek, trim hats of the 1930's, which went with the slim, bias cut dresses.

Men's hats changed very little throughout the period late 1800's - 1950's, when they vanished from the fashion scene almost over night. Hats from the late 1800's tended to have higher crowns than those of the 1900's. Eventually the felt fedora took over and was worn for over four decades. Men's hats were frequently related to social status. The cap, for example, was worn primarily by working class men on a daily basis; although it was adopted as sportswear (for bicycling, golf, etc.) by men of the upper classes during the late teens and worn as such until the early 1940's.

1880's and 90's to early 1900's

Usually hats from this period were small, stiff and decorated with flowers, ribbons, fruit, and feathers. They were tied on the head like bonnets; but a fashionable lady's hats were not real bonnets. True bonnets, which covered the head and protected the face from the elements, were worn by farm women and elderly ladies. The clothing of the period tended to be fitted tightly to the upper body, with narrow shoulders; requiring small, perky hats to complete the line. The bonnet tie began to disappear in the mid-1890's, but the hats remained small, and perched on the head. They became gradually larger, and the trims were definitely more elaborate as we move into the early 1900's.

Early - Mid Teens

By 1910 hats were absolutely enormous, and lavishly trimmed. Even middle class women wore hats so elaborate it's hard to believe they ever existed. Hats between 1910 and 1915 often have a wire frame to hold their shape, with silk or cotton stretched over it. My 1918 McCall's Magazine, in the "Home Milinery" section, reports that wire frames are "old fashioned," so figure most wire frame hats you find are well before that date. False hair pieces, or "rats," were routinely worn to puff out the natural hair, so hats from this period are often very large on the head. Sometimes you'll find a little fabric bag-like piece on the inside, in addition to the lining. Women could stuff paper inside to help get a proper fit, if they didn't wear hair pieces. These hats are usually lined, and if the hat was manufactured, the maker's name, and often the store that sold it, were stamped on the lining inside the crown. Many hats were made at home, or by "little miliners," often widows supporting families who eked out a living making hats. Unusual hats you might encounter from this period include the tricorn (one of my prized possessions is a purple plush tricorn, with bright pink satin lining), elaborate evening turbans, a la Poiret, or a hat featuring the complete body of a bird.

WWI (Late Teens)

Hats became smaller and more practical, as clothes became trimmer and acquired a more natural shape. More women were working during the war, materials were harder to get, laws protecting certain birds had been passed, which limited the types of feathers allowed, and trims in general became more subdued. Small brims were more usual, and the toque, a brimless hat, was popular; although some large brims were still worn. The use of false hair pieces declined, but was still frequent enough that hats of the era may be large on the head. Some women were getting their hair cut short; but this was not so common as some costume books would have us think, until into the 1920's. The hats tended to have a tailored look, and a version of the cloche began to appear.

Roaring 20's

The hat associated with the 1920's is the cloche, a close fitting hat that framed the face, and often covered the hair completely. Cloches from the early twenties were usually interlined with stiff buckram, and stood away from the head. The light weight, tight fitting cloche appeared towards the middle of the decade. Cloches might or might not have brims, but the shape of the crown is the tip off. Nearly all 20's cloches were lined, including straws and felts, with the maker's name sometimes stamped on the inside lining, if it was manufactured. We often find cloches that are very small, sometimes impossible to get on our heads. People were smaller then, meaning bone structure, and even 1/2 inch makes an enormous in fitting a hat. Also, in the*mid to late 20's hair was worn very short and the hats very tight; some very small cloches we find might have been belonged to a young girl. Expect felts, straws, and imitation horsehair made of rayon; with some trim, but scaled do wn to the style. Cloches look ridiculous with any style of clothing but that of the time: narrow shouldered, straight up and down, no width or fussiness in the bodice. They are extremely practical for motoring in open cars, since they don't blow off. Other hats of the period might include tarns, evening turbans, and decorative hair ornaments that aren't really hats, but are strips of "jewels" or fake flowers worn fitted to the head.

The Depressing 30's

Contemporary photographs and magazines show that the cloche was actually worn into the early 1930's by many women; although the typical SO's hat arrived along with the longer, more fitted dresses that appeared in fashion magazines in 1930. While many different types of hat were worn, large brim, small brim, no brim; most had crowns that fit closely to the head. Daytime dresses and suits depended on cut and shape for their style, with little ornamentation; and the same is true of the hats. There might be one feather, or a flower, but many hats had no trimming at all. Usually 30's hats are not lined, with some handmade exceptions, and the makers name label, and often a small cloth tab with a size, is sewn into the inner band. The fedora for women was popular, as was the "Peter Pan" hat, and tarns were worn, often in plaid. Toward the end of the 1930's, the hat styles we associate with the 1940's had appeared.

WWII, the 1940's

Most 1940's hat styles got their start in fashion magazines in 1937-8. The darling tilty first appeared in 1937, continued through 1945; but had disappeared by 1947; as had many of the other wild and wonderful 40's hat styles. The crown usually stood tall and away from the face; in fact some hats are mostly crown placed on top of the head. An exception was the broad brimmed hat, some of which were extraordinarily broad (although usually not heavily trimmed); and worn either square on the head or at an alarming tilt. The exaggerated height or width was necessary to balance the broad shoulders of the clothing. Small hats might have a great deal of trim, masses of flowers and a veil, for example. Some hats were simply sculptures made of felt, cut and folded to stand up from the head. These may look like uninteresting blobs until you put one on, so always try on any blob of felt you might find in the hat-department. 40's hats are rarely lined, and the makers name, often the store, and a size are nearly always on labels sewn into the inner band.

During the war some women compensated for clothes ration¬ing by wearing wonderful hats (most hat trims weren' t rationed); but others took the opportunity to jettison their hats completely; substituting head scarves when they needed a head covering. After the war, the only new hat style to appear was the upside down soup dish that complemented the "Dior look." With that exception, small, often plain hats, (some were merely small, flat bunches of flowers or veiling)virtually the only type worn from the late 40's until the hat literally vanished during the late 1950's. When Breakfast at Tiffany's came out in the early I960's, Holly Golightly's broad brimmed hat was considered amazingly wonderful; it had been that long since a broad brimmed hat was normal wear

Men's Hats

Men's hats, like men's clothing, changed very little from the end of the 19th through the first half of the 20th century, although a style of hat might have changed its original purpose. The top hat, for example, once worn in the city by business men in 19th century, became elegant evening wear exclusively (although some work¬men, most notably chimney sweeps, adopted the top hat as a symbol of their craft). The bowler hat was worn as a dress-up hat by men of the middle class, and the homburg was a gentleman's hat for day. Straw boaters were extremely popular during the spring and summer as casual hats, from the late 1800's through the 1920's, and were even worn by women during the early years of this century. More exclusive gentlemen wore Panama's, a straw hat with a high crown and relatively small brim; which can be identified by the crease on the crown. These were very costly. As business clothes became looser and softer; the soft felt hat, sometimes known as the "snap-brim," or "trilby," but more easily identifiable to us as the "fedora;" became standard business and casual wear for men. WWII was the beginning of the end of hats for men, although hats were routinely worn through the mid-1950's.

© Copyright 1989 - All Rights Reserved, Terry McCormick, Vintage Clothing Newsletter