Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Bizarre History Of Hats

Where did you get that hat?
Where did you get that tile?
Isn't it a nobby one, and just the proper style?
I should like to have one just the same as that!
Whe'er I go they shout, 'Hello!
Where did you get that hat?'

Sorry for the long post today but the subject of hats is a complex one that goes way back in time. Except for the crazy sculptural ones that show up at royal weddings and fashion runways (and such) hats have pretty well disappeared for normal people, men in particular, in the past half century. If I were a person who looked good in hats I suppose I'd wish they'd come back into fashion because I like the idea tipping them at total strangers all the time just to be cordial and civilized. Or pulling the brim down over one eye just to look cool. Nowadays, if we're having a bad hair day and don't want strange looks all we get are baseball caps or maybe a cowboy hat if we're mucking out the stalls in a barn. The lack of hats these days is a shame really. 

Ever since humans began taking care of their appearance heads have been covered, especially wherever sun and rain were severe. As shown by the sculptures of Egypt, the drawings of ancient China, and heads on coins of early Greece and Rome wearing of a hat has always been a mark of rank (not smelly rank – highness of station rank).

Felt is believed to have been discovered by the nomadic tribes of Asia, who made tents and garments by felting sheep's wool. Washing their tents caused them to shrink so much they became their first hats but people found they smelled like wet sheep when it rained so gentlemen stayed indoors if showers were predicted until someone invented the umbrella. In the 14th and 15th century proper head attire was considered necessary for men while it took until the 18th century for millinery fashion to catch on for women. Until then women of class wore men's hats or had Marge Simpson hairdos. 

For a time live, small animals and docile birds were also worn by both men and women especially in winter as they kept the head warm (see Davy Crockett pic, okay it's Fess Parker, with rifle Betsy, right).

By 1600 the use of fur felt took a huge leap when the hat-making qualities of beaver from the New World were discovered. The tall beaver came into fashion and crowns reached a height of 7 inches or more. Short beavers were left alone and today very few tall beavers are found, having been hunted to near extinction.

Next came the derby, invented by William Bowler in London, and was originally a piece of riding headgear. The name came from its appearance at the English Derby. But horses are fine in their place and the derby found itself abandoned in preference the bigger, more stylish summer brim of the straw panama hat and more expansively brimmed soft felt hats in the next fall and winter; thereby leaving the derby wearing for more formal occasions, like hangings and balls and such.

Then all was well with hats and everyone wore either a fedora or a pork pie or a homburg until the 1960's when one's hair became important as a status symbol of hippydom and rock starness. Hats lost their social appeal and thousands of millinery jobs were lost to China. And now when we wear many hats we don't have to be wearing one at all. When you come to me hat in hand your hands may be empty and if you expect something at the drop of the hat or throw your hat in the ring there may not be an actual hat involved at all. Just the suggestion of one. Talking about hats without them being in the room is all old hat now.

I know, I've gone on long enough and have worn out my welcome. "Here's your hat what's your hurry"... I get that a lot. Without being handed an actual hat of course.


  1. Does this mean I'm the only one who wears hats anymore? As a pigment impaired person, I need hats in summer, and since I hate cold, I need them in winter too. The thing you forgot to mention about the hat band is that it's necessary for sticking various treasures collected in the woods like feathers.

    1. Women do get to wear more hats than us guys. I could have gone on for hours but I knew you'd fill in some of the gaps Linda! Haha.

  2. When I lived in Northern Ireland, I had the most wonderful tweed cap. It was functional and cute, and matched both the weather and the style of the country.

    Sadly, when I returned to Canada, there wasn't a bit of tweed in sight, and my beloved cap seemed so out of place. Besides, it never rained - at least not for long - in Southern Québec and Southern Ontario, so it lost its functionality, too.

    I remember my mother always wearing a hat to church. She even used a handkerchief as a mantilla once. On Sunday, in the summer, all the Baptist ladies wear the most wonderful concoctions.

    My girlfried married a Ukranian. At the wedding reception, she traded her veil for a kerchief to illustrate her change in status.

    I love toques, cloche, staw hats with wide brims and ribbons, fedoras at a jaunty angle, berets and beanies. Sometimes a hard hat is the headgear of choice. Mike wears a helmet when he rides his bike, and another style of helmet when he rides his motorcycle.

    My dad was in the military - and there you have many styles of hats. The kepi and the tricorn spontaneously come to mind. (Kepi is a good word for playing scrabble 'cause it uses up that pesky "k".)

    Wearing hats is a lost art!