I’ve been asked this question and let’s say women’s hats have been in fashion for centuries. If I limit this to Europe (because various regions developed headdresses as different times) then we can look at it a bit more specifically. Headdresses might be a better word than hat since what we see in modern terms as a hat is not the same as a head covering. This could cover everything from a kerchief to feather and bone to felt and straw.
If we look at earlier civilizations, head ornamentation covered metal crowns, coronets and helmets for war. These can be seen in Egyptian, Babylonian, Sumerian etc. eras. Metal working was endurable and saved the head from a Bronze Age sword. But it wasn’t really used in making hats or head coverings so much as showing social class and standing.
The first hats were most likely squares of fabric, just as the first types of clothing (after fur and wool) were squares of woven fabric stitched together. As civilizations evolved into aggregate societies, becoming more sedentary and developing cultures, they also learned to weave, sew and shape cloth. The making of any fabric was time-consuming and no piece was wasted. People either made their own cloth or had to trade with merchants and then sew their own garments. Rectangular construction used every piece even if it was cut first into various rectangular, square or triangular shapes.
The same knowledge and skills for clothing would have been the basis for hats. It is known that Norse women wore rectangles of fabric upon their heads, sewn into a peak or rounded, essentially forming a cap. (many early medieval caps and coifs were worn by both sexes) The veil or fabric (from wool, linen or cotton depending on the area) rectangular headdress was common in European countries, protecting the head from sun, and in some areas as a form of tradition or religious custom. Styles may have been influenced back and forth between the religious customs and the nonreligious. In some cases married women were required to cover their heads and this seems to be more a Christian tradition than cultural.
Fabric became more elaborate and was used in turban like wraps and caps. It’s hard to peg the first true hat but the Phrygian cap (a soft red knitted hat, like the Smurfs wear) was being worn in Phrygia (of course) as well as Greece and Rome as early as the 4th century BCE. The Catholic mitre was being worn by about the 11th century, and was probably an adaptation of the Phrygian cap. But these are men’s hats.
Early outerwear involved rectangular mantles (the precursor to the cloak) and eventually hoods. These garments were worn by men and women alike. Women’s hats began as elaborately configured and starched veils or fabric. Some were pinned into interesting shapes while others were stitched. There would have been a utilitarian aspect, keeping the hair away from food and fires. As textile weaves became more intricate, so did the headdresses, involving wire, mesh, brocade, velvet, fur, linen, silk, wool, etc.
As the Catholic church’s influence grew, various laws came into effect. Some were sumptuary laws indicating that only a person of a certain station (or nobility) could wear certain colors, fabrics or styles. Others were edicts of the church, that women must cover their hair, or even their ears because Mary had conceived the word of God and the ear must be covered. This brought out more ingenious headdress, often flaunting the church doctrines. Veils so thin they were nearly nonexistent are indicated in some paints, and really don’t hide hair nor ears. Hats and headdress became greater symbols of status, social rank, wealth and fashion.
Around the 13th century the transition began from coif, cap and headdress to hat. The barbette or porkpie hat was a stiff band of several inches depth that went around the head with a piece of fabric wrapping under the chin to hold it on. It was hollow on the crown but some began to be filled in with fabric.
fairytale princesses but had a relatively short life and also had many variations. These began in the 14th century and involved veils as well as hat forms mixed together. Jewels and pearls adorned headdresses by the 1400s and the Tudor headdresses took on a new form, which was not utilitarian at all. The Renaissance and Tudor eras of the 15th century really began the roller coaster of fashion in all senses. Clothing patterns became very elaborate as did hats and by the Baroque and Rococo eras hats and hairpieces were monumental in stature and elaborateness.The ornamentation of the Tudors was just the beginning of hats.
So when were women’s hats in fashion? You could say from about 1300 till about 1960. Hats are still worn but not as often. The full evolution would take a lot longer to research and write. As well, narrowing hats by country or era can give more focus. This is a very surface brush with hats and I have not consulted one of my 40+ books on clothing/costume history at home.
But hats have often been worn for fashion and fun, to flaunt status and sometimes for piety. They will always be worn as protection from the elements, whether sun, rain, cold or wind. They reflect the flavors of an era as well as what fabric or trim was newly discovered or cherished. They also indicate the growing sophistication of the human hand and the creative mind. Hats will never quite die out for all of these reasons.
If you would like to more know about a specific era, country or style, then let me know and I’ll see what I can dredge up.