Women’s Hats Through History: Beautiful and Practical

Women’s Hats Through History: Beautiful and Practical

Pink straw hat with bow isolated on white

Women have been wearing hats for thousands of years. Over those years, the styles have morphed and changed, veering from practical and plain to elaborate statements of class and wealth, then back again. In the past you could tell a lot about a person simply by the women’s hats they wore. Today not as many women wear them on a regular basis and they are often worn for practical reasons (baseball caps keep the sun out of your eyes, for instance), but they are still a fashion statement.

Greek and Roman Women’s Hats

In the Greek and Roman eras, women didn’t wear hats except when they were outside. Indoors, they tied their hair into updos using ribbons or small cauls or snoods made of silk or delicate wires. When they went outside, they would wear wide brimmed hats to keep the sun off their skin, but these were usually practical and plain.

The Middle Ages

By the early middle ages, hats for women had evolved considerably. Part of this was because the Christian church had declared that women, especially when married, had to cover their hair. Indoors, women wore wimples or veils that were often embroidered or edged with lace. For outdoors, they would wear skullcaps that were elaborately embroidered or trimmed with gems or colored stones. This was the beginning of true women’s hats.

As the Middle Ages moved on, women’s hats became more elaborate. There were numerous styles that evolved into oversized displays of wealth and power. Among these were the popular steeple hats often seen in fairytale pictures, with a tall, pointed cone covered with velvet or silk and trailing a delicate veil. Other popular styles were horned headdresses called Bourrelets and Hennins. These were formed of stiff materials and covered with luxurious fabrics and details such as pearls, gold netting and gemstones. Some wealthy women also wore elaborate turbans favored by those returning from travels in the orient. The Gable headdress and other ostentatious headgear were very popular in royal courts because they covered the hair but allowed women the chance to display their wealth and beauty.

Sumptuary Laws

By the height of the Renaissance, the styles for women’s hats had become so over-the-top that some countries established sumptuary laws that restricted what style and size women’s hats could be worn by various classes of people. Some styles and materials were reserved for royalty or nobility. If peasants or bourgeoisie ladies wore them, they could be punished. This was the era when hats were truly a reflection of status.

Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries

During the Cavalier era of the French kings, women’s hats began to mimic men’s hat styles but with a feminine edge. Wide brimmed Cavalier hats were trimmed with beautifully dyed feathers, ribbons, silk flowers and other embellishments. As the years wore on, however, women moved toward more practical styles such as broad brimmed straw hats for outdoor wear.

The pendulum swung back toward elaborate headdresses when the fontage or freelange became popular. These weren’t really hats; they were intricate wire frames covered with lace and ribbons that held women’s hair up in fantastically styled arrangements of curls. Marie Antoinette often wore a fontage. When the French regime fell to Napoleon, women’s hats once again moved away from the fanciful and back to practicality. The mob cap was a simple linen cap with gathered edges that were worn by the middle classes and peasants to protect their hair from dust and dirt. Soon merchants and women of all classes were wearing them indoors.

Eighteen Into the Nineteenth Centuries

If you look at portraits of women during the 1700s, you’ll see them wearing mob caps such as those worn by Martha Washington. For outdoor wear, a variety of styles of bonnets became popular. These could be made from straw, wool, felt or starched fabrics. Many bonnets had removable ribbons and trim that could be switched out to match various dresses. By the 1890’s, these bonnets had become so oversized that men often made fun of them.

A New Century

When the Jazz Age arrived in the 1920s, women’s clothing underwent a major overhaul. Dresses were simple sheaths with a lot less material and women’s hats followed suit. The cloche, a close-fitting, bell shaped hat, became popular. When World War II broke out, austerity measures ensured hats wouldn’t become extravagant again. Military styles such as sailor hats were all the rage for ladies. Many women also wore hats for careers such as stewardesses and police officers. In the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy popularized the simple, pill box hat.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, women’s hats have declined in popularity. If worn at all, they are usually worn for practical reasons, such as keeping the head warm in winter. Some ladies wear hats for special occasions  such as attending church or a wedding, but it is no longer a regular practice. In the future this could change, as fashion does seem to go in cycles.

At Halloween Empire, we offer a wide range of women’s hats to coordinate with your Halloween costume or to wear for any occasion you have in mind.