Fashion: A Bygone Era of Hats

I like hats. Hats are fun. The mad hatter loved his hat but then he was quite mad, from felting those hats. Mad as a hatter was once a popular saying. Though there is dispute as to whether it actually came from hat making, once hatters used mercury to felt the hats and that drove them quite mad as it was absorbed into their skin.

In a later era, World War II, my mother worked for a hatter in Calgary. Because so many men were on the front lines, women’s emancipation happened. Women had to work the jobs that were once held almost exclusively by men, which had left nursing, secretarial and teaching as traditional women’s jobs. My mother worked one of the machines that made or felted the hats. At one point an inspector came in and noticed she was not being paid adequately. Women were to be paid a man’s wage if they were doing a man’s job, not less because they were women. So my mother was paid more and the world changed, with women never going back  completely to the way it had been before the war.

And hats changed too. In the earlier decades of the 20th century hats were a required form of dress. This style had come up through the ages, where hats were used before central heating to keep the person warm. Headwear had, at points, indicated the marital status of a woman, with unmarried women sometimes allowed to go hatless or with hair down. And sometimes hats indicated a religious status or belief (this is still the case today).

But any well-dressed man or woman in the 40s and 50s always wore a hat. A woman’s was not as necessary but a man was rarely seen without one. And men doffed their hats to the ladies and were required to remove them when inside, or for ceremonies, to show respect. Ladies hats became small fripperies worn in various ways, as adornment to their hair. They had veils, feathers and odd decorations of flowers and birds (sometimes stuffed). In fact not much had changed in the decorations of hats since the 17th century when women went so far as to wear galleons in their hair. (The Baroque and Rococo periods saw some amazingly ornate hats of towering proportions, not to mention the hair.)

Men’s hats settled into the fedora as the most popular form in North America. A man would probably only have one hat most of his life, unless he was well-to-do. But that hat would fit well. Hats were made in sizes going up in increments so one could find a hat for any head. Women’s were too, unless they were the ornaments that sat atop the head where size mattered little.

However as time progressed through the 60s and 70s, hats were worn less and less. They were also now being made of materialsother  than straw and felt. The process of felting with mercury, for felt hats, actually involved the use of animal furs (beaver, rabbit) that were felted and blocked to make hats. They’re more durable and softer than wool. And they were expensive. I actually have one vintage pillbox hat that says it’s made of velour which is in fact felted fur, the softest type.

So hats are now mostly novelty items, at least those super duper, fancy cocktail hats that few of us wear. But people still wear them; models and stars who show up for elaborate or public functions. Royalty still wear hats. Others also wear hats but the headwear has changed in style and size. Women’s hats rarely come in sizes anymore, which is hugely annoying. I have a large head, or a small man’s size. But women, hatmakers now believe, have one size of head. I can’t buy many hats unless I go for the custom hats and although I have a couple (a tricorn and a high pillbox), they are very expensive.

The most banal or common hat in this era is the baseball cap, synonymous with every guy in jeans and T-shirt or track pants. Of course, not every guy wears these caps, which I classify as the MacDonald’s of hats. They are rarely classy (though there are designer ones) and often denote the good ole party boy from the hicks. Still there was most likely the equivalent in all eras. And hats are often functional items to keep the weather at bay, whether sun, snow or rain.

Hats do evolve and the wearing of them waxes and wanes with styles and fashion. They are fun to wear for more than just a costume. They can be functional and fancy all at once. Dressing up with a hat can make you feel like a star. I actually haven’t worn most of my hats for a while. Perhaps I’ll start again.

And for people wanting to look at hats and different styles, some reminiscent of earlier eras, here are a few sites:

http://www.berkeleyhat.com/index.html

http://ediehats.com/store-theatre

http://www.ilovehats.ca/home.html

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