In this interview, “Vintage Hats & Bonnets” author Sue Langley discusses hats from the Victorian era to the age of the flappers and beyond. Langley describes the differences between cloches, Gainsboroughs, bonnets, and boaters. She also delves into her collection of fashion plates, photos, and other hat-related ephemera. The second edition of Langley’s book, published by Collector Books in 2009, is available from Amazon.
When I was about eight years old, I went up into my grandma’s attic one day and found a little bonnet and a red plaid dress in a trunk. It looked liked something I’d seen in history class. I took it right down to grandma and asked her about it. She said, “That’s the dress your great aunt wore when Lincoln’s funeral train came through Syracuse.”
So I called up the local Syracuse paper, and they confirmed that Lincoln’s funeral train had indeed stopped in town, and stayed for about 15 minutes. They also said a little miracle had occurred: A white dove had flown down from the rafters and landed on Lincoln’s funeral car. It stayed there until the train started to pull out of the station. People took this as a sign that the country was supposed to heal and get back together.
I was fascinated. My grandmother was a teacher and so was my mother. They instilled in me a love of all things related to history. Of course, I picked that up in a big way as an adult. I haunted garage sales, flea markets, and auctions. The more I saw, the more the connection between fashion and history touched me. Once I went to an auction in a little suburb near Syracuse and saw two beautiful Civil War-era hats. The fabrics they used were so different. That became a puzzle that needed to be solved.
I learned that silk was used a lot, while fur and felt were mostly used for winter hats. But the most popular material might have been straw, particularly very fine leghorn straw for bonnets. There was also a coarser, whiter straw called chip straw, used for little racy-looking hats. One of the nicest hats I’ve seen from the Civil War era is a very fine leghorn with a paper label. The paper label has a bunch of little blue scrolls inside and the model name “Rosalind.”
In addition to hats, I collect fashion plates and anything else related to hats. For example, I just picked up a piece of sheet music with a bicycle girl on the front. She’s wheeling down the road, wearing an 1890 bloomer outfit and a perky little hat. So I’ll collect anything that pertains either to hats or period clothing.
Collectors Weekly: What exactly are fashion plates?
Langley: They’re fashion illustrations, hand-colored steel engravings, which provide a somewhat stylized or idealized view of ladies’ fashions. My earliest hand-colored plates are from 1690, with gold and silver tints. I also have some French plates from Marie Antoinette’s era.
I’ve been collecting them for more than 25 years. These days you can find them by going to Google and typing in “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” which is one of the most famous lady’s books with the hand-colored plates. I used to get them at antiques shows, especially antique clothing shows.
There are a lot of fabulous representations, especially when you get to the Art Deco plates in the teens up into the 1930s. They had a special stenciling process. Shortly after the turn of the century, the lines were changing from Art Nouveau and the old-fashioned fussy frilly stuff to a more modern look. They look like watercolors.
Quite a few Art Deco plates can be found in the latest edition of “Vintage Hats & Bonnets.” I’ve also included some stellar vintage photographs from as far back as 1840. Those early ones are copies of daguerreotype photos. The book also has copies of tintypes and ambrotypes, as well as later snapshots and portraits.
The photos show what people really wore, while the fashion plates provide the stylized version. Up until the end of the 1960s, idealized fashion plates and even photographs that you’d see in “Vogue” were actually pretty close to what people actually wore. But today, even in New York, you don’t see anyone who’s dressed like the models in “Vogue.”
I keep my photos in big books that are organized by decade, from about 1850 through the 1940s. I have a few photographs from the 1950s and ’60s, but that’s not my specialty. I just bought a nice one from the 1890s. A woman is wearing a little fur piece around her neck—they sometimes called that a choker—and she’s wearing a hat with an entire bird on top.
Collectors Weekly: Why did you decide to focus only on hats?
Langley: Well, I love them and have quite a few of them. I was writing a magazine article, and a friend of mine put me in touch with her editor. So I sent in the article and a few clumsy photos I’d taken of some of the hats.
They wrote back and said, “Can you please get better photographs and start developing this?” So I did. Every couple months I’d send in another chapter. The book is more than 400-pages long, but it covers the 18th century through the 1960s. It’s fascinating to see how the clothing corresponds to the historical events. For instance, during the War of 1812, hats developed little military-type features. It’s interesting to see how fashion was influenced by events of the time.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a favorite era?
Langley: I love them all, but the 1920s are a favorite. I think November 1920 was the first time women could vote for president. It’s amazing to think they’d been campaigning for the right to vote since Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, reminding him to “remember the ladies.”
The teens were incredible, too. World War I caused tremendous changes in women’s lives. More women took over the work of men to help out with the war effort. Paul Poiret in Paris designed radically different clothes for women, including the first pants for women. He designed the pantaloon outfit. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Costume Institute did a show on his designs. He was just a tremendous influence on fashion. Some of his hats were out of this world. The prototypes for the 1920s cloche hats with deep crowns also emerged in the teens.
In the ’20s, you see the little cloches with very deep crowns, almost to the eyebrows. They also had wide-brimmed cloches called capelines. Some were made of horsehair and were almost transparent. You can see through the thin horsehair to get a suggestion of the wearer’s eyes. They were so flirty and seductive.
Around the mid-19th century, women began wearing sporty hats like boaters, which were also called sailors. There were a lot of Tyroleans, a type of fedora, during this period. You’d see women hiking, mountain climbing, or out in a rowboat doing active things, and they’d be wearing these new sporty hats. The hats changed with the period. A boater or sailor, which date back to 1850, would’ve been very small in 1890 but larger between about 1900 and 1915 to accommodate the pompadour hairdos.
“Godey’s” also has fashion plates of women on horseback. They sometimes called these women amazons or equestriennes. They often wore either a small top hat or a little sailor hat.
Collectors Weekly: Were hats initially seen just as fashion accessories or did they have other purposes?
Langley: We can only speculate about why people started wearing hats. Keeping warm, indicating status, making oneself more attractive to the opposite sex would seem to be obvious reasons. As early as 4000 B.C., a Neolithic artist from the Sahara Desert created an enchanting cave drawing of women wearing elaborate turbans as they raced alongside longhorn cattle. So, evidently, there were hats before people wrote down historical events.
Collectors Weekly: What were the prominent styles during the Victorian era?
Langley: The Victorian era is 1837 to 1900, which is a very long time. Within that, during the Civil War era, you had very demure bonnets. Bonnets had been popular for a while, and the brims ranged from long to halfway off the face. During the Civil War, they were more off the face, but taller. The lip of the bonnet would often be trimmed with lace and artificial flowers, a little feather, and even artificial grapes or some kind of vegetable.
By the 1860s, very fashionable young women would often adopt a small, perky-looking hat instead of a bonnet. For evenings, of course, there would be headdresses, which would be made out of lace, ribbons, and sometimes jewels. But as far as the outdoor headwear for daytime, it was either a bonnet or a sporty-looking hat.
“Silent movies were a big influence on hats and clothes. Women wanted whatever the actresses wore.”
During the 1870s, crinoline hoop skirts went out of fashion and the bustle look came in. The bustle look would last from the 1870s to the late 1890s. The bustle look’s most obvious feature was a prominent rear end that swayed enticingly when a lady walked. Some of the era’s small hats had long strings that trailed down the back of the bodice and were called “kissing strings,” from a French phrase that translates to “Follow Me, Young Man.” So it’s a big bustle dress with a huge fanny that swayed from side to side. These little ribbon streamers from the back of the hat would also sway very enticingly.
There were bigger hats during all of these periods, but hats were mostly small during the 1870s. They got a little larger during the 1880s. Some were off the face while others tipped down over the eyes a little. Those were similar to the tilts of the 1940s.
There was a great change in fashion toward the end of the 1890s. Some people consider this the beginning of the Edwardian period. Queen Victoria was still alive, but she wasn’t exactly a fashion plate. Edward’s wife, Alexandra, was the British fashion leader, and there were also a lot of French fashion leaders.
Big sleeves were popular during this period. The big fanny of the bustle disappeared, and women were participating more in sports, particularly bicycling. Some of the cycling women were mercilessly satirized. They would actually wear big, puffy bloomers to bicycle. They were the same type of bloomers advocated in the 1850s and ’60s in a failed dress-reform effort. But by the 1890s, they caught on for sports and were worn with little straw boaters borrowed from men’s wear. In period photos, you’ll note women are becoming more assertive!
The years 1900 to 1910 are associated with the Edwardian era. Near the end of the 1890s, graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson had a tremendous influence on fashion and hats. His Gibson Girl was one of the first American looks, and it became popular abroad. He depicted women wearing a variety of beautiful hats. They were still corseted, but the favorite dress of the Edwardian period was a white batiste lacy dress. It was called a lingerie dress because it was white and lacy just like underwear of the day. It has become very desirable for collectors.
The Gibson Girl is sometimes shown without a hat if she’s indoors or doing something very casual. But most of the time she wears a larger, more modern looking hat. Gibson Girls often had a pompadour reminiscent of the hairdos of Marie Antoinette, whose hairdo came back in style again and again. You saw it in the 1940s and the ’60s.
The pompadour hairdos, of course, demanded tall toque hats. Sometimes the hats looked almost like an oval dinner platter. People often call them platter hats or plateaus. They weren’t very wide, so they were held to the pompadours with hatpins. Some had wavy brims while others were often trimmed on the brim with roses, ribbons, and feathers.
From 1905 on you began to see Gainsboroughs, which were big, wide hats. About 1907, Lily Elsie starred on Broadway in an operetta called “The Merry Widow,” so everybody had to have a Gainsborough “Merry Widow” hat. I have a lot of cartoons and satirical photo postcards that made fun of the hats. One shows a man trying to kiss a woman, but he can’t get beneath her Gainsborough to do it. It’s corny but funny stuff. And they were big—some Gainsboroughs are 22 inches in diameter. They were popular from about 1907 to about 1914.
Women of that period also used a lot of long hatpins. There were jokes about how a woman might jab a man with one if he came on too strong.
From about 1910 to 1920 we see the beginnings of modern clothing. Paul Poiret revolutionized fashion in hats and clothes. He claims to have abolished the corset, as did many others, like Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin. But it was probably a collaboration of different designers. Coco Chanel came on the scene in the latter half of the teens. She opened hat boutiques in the early part of the decade and branched out into clothes.
Silent movies were a big influence at this time on hats and clothes. Women wanted to buy whatever the silent movie actresses wore. This is also the decade the suffragettes put forth their strongest efforts to win the right to vote.
By about 1912, partly because of the influence of Paul Poiret, you began to see sleek little hats with a lot of vertical trim. They called them toques because they didn’t have brims. At the same time, you began to see many more sporty hats, fedora variations, boaters, and bicorns. From the turn of the century, motoring hats became popular because more women wore motoring clothes. More often than not, they wore little caps that looked like the caps men wear today, only with a puffy crown.
There’s a picture of one of these hats in the second edition of my book with a Mary Pickford label. She, of course, was one of the most famous silent movie stars. The hat is tweed-check with a little scarf that runs through two loops on the top of the hat and ties under the chin. The cars at that time were open, and the roads were dirt, so women would wear fairly large-brimmed hats with big veils or scarves tied over them so they wouldn’t blow away.
Pre-cloches—hats with very deep crowns—were also developed in the teens. I saw one online recently by Jeanne Lanvin. She was a milliner before she became a famous dress designer. It was black velvet with emerald satin Art Deco pinwheels on each side and black lining.
By the end of the teens, more modern-looking shirtwaists and skirts and correspondingly casual-looking hats started to become very noticeable. The newly emancipated flapper who could now vote wanted to imitate the guys, so she bobbed her hair and wore smaller cloches that looked somewhat mannish. Women wanted to be equals—they didn’t want to be treated like fragile flowers anymore.
Collectors Weekly: Where does the word cloche come from?
Langley: It means “bell” in French. Bell describes the shape of the hat. One of my “Godey’s Lady’s” books from the 1860s mentions the word, referring to a hat. I couldn’t find a corresponding picture of it, but from the description, it was nothing like the cloches of the 1920s.
Women wore cloche hats during the day, as well as sports hats. The illustrations on the outsides of hatboxes tended to emphasize sports hats. In my book, there’s a picture of a hatbox with scenes of women golfing and playing tennis.
In the evening they’d wear jeweled tiaras or a jeweled headache band. I’m not sure how that name came about, but it probably had something to do with going to the speakeasy and drinking a bunch of hooch while you were dressed in your gorgeous beaded dress. The headache band would go down to your eyebrows and tie at the back of your head. Then, at home, they’d wear boudoir caps to bed, which looked amazingly like the 18th-century caps of Marie Antoinette.
In the late ’20s women also wore helmet cloches. They fit very close, and a lot of them didn’t even have a brim. They were also called skull caps and were often beautifully jeweled for eveningwear. There are several examples of them in the book, too.
With the Depression in the ’30s, hats got much smaller but also perkier, as if they were trying to keep spirits up. Greta Garbo wore a tilted hat with a big plume that fit very close to the head when she was in a Civil War-period movie called “Romance.” The minute that hat came out, they called it the Eugenie, who’d been the last empress of France.
Collectors Weekly: How many hats would a woman wear in a day?
Langley: That would depend on where she was going and what she was wearing. For example, you would probably put on a little boudoir cap for breakfast, and you might leave it on if you were working around the house. But most pictures show women going hatless while doing housework.
If you were going shopping, you would choose a more informal felt or straw cloche to go with your ensemble. Again, depending on what you were doing, it would either look more formal or sportier. If you were going to a luncheon or to tea or to a speakeasy, you’d wear a much more formal hat. If you were going to a dance, like the flappers, you’d wear a jeweled headache band or a jeweled cloche. Before bed, you’d put on your boudoir cap again.
Collectors Weekly: Did hairstyles and hats affect each other?
Langley: They definitely interacted. For example, as far back as Marie Antoinette and the big powdered hairdos, women wore tiny, doily-type things or big enveloping bonnets. The hats either sat on top of the hair or covered it entirely. One of the most famous bonnets from that period, and still around today, is the calash bonnet. It had ribs. You could lower it and fold it flat almost like the top of an old-fashioned carriage, which is I guess how it got the name calash.
At the beginning of the 1800s, women often cut their hair very short in a Titus look. So you had hats—often turbans—that flattered this hairstyle. The turban is one of many basic hat shapes that have been with us for centuries. The same is true of the beret. Most of the basic beret styles have roots in antiquity. A lot of them are from the Renaissance, like the berets of Henry VIII.
By the 1830s, women favored big hairdos with lots of loops and knots, the biggest of which were called Apollo’s knots. The bonnets of that period had big crowns and a brim that was way up off the face. The Apollo’s knots would fit inside the tall crown of the hat.
That interaction between hair and hat continued through history. If you were going to wear a close-fitting cloche hat in the 1920s, you had to have your hair bobbed to fit in the cloche.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the best-known hat designers between the Victorian and flapper eras?
Langley: One of the all-time most famous designers was Caroline Reboux. She started working around the Civil War. Jeanne Lanvin is another. She began her career in the late Victorian period and designed hats before becoming a dress designer. Madame Virot was also a very famous designer from the mid-19th century on.
“Godey’s Lady’s” mentions an American designer named John Genin. Another very famous milliner was J. Suzanne Talbot. Maison Lewis made very nice hats. And by the teens, of course, you had Coco Chanel.
Madame Alphonsine, Rose Descat, and Madame Georgette were very well known. Madame Suzy was very famous and some of Paul Poiret’s hats are out of this world. He had someone design his hats to go with his ensembles, but I understand that he took an active part, just like Christian Dior, in selecting and suggesting the design of the hat. American designers from, say, 1910 would include Hattie Carnegie, who trained in France, and Peggy Hoyt.
In the ’20s, the new names were Lilly Daché and Bes-Ben, which was a combination of the first names of designer Benjamin J. Greenfield and his sister Bessie. A Bes-Ben hat brought five figures at an auction in the 1990s. He designed little tilt hats during World War II. Sometimes they’d have little champagne bottles or a whole living room on top. They had all kinds of really outrageous things on them. And Caroline Reboux was still designing in the ’20s.
Collectors Weekly: Did women adorn their hats with their own accessories?
Langley: I think a lot of women refurbished their hats to go with what they were wearing. A lot of antique hats have probably gone through many changes over the years that we just don’t know about. I have a few hats that I’m sure are all original, but I have plenty of others that I’m not so sure about.
I’ve often wished my hats could talk and tell me about themselves. You get little clues, though. For example, sometimes if you look very carefully you’ll find little clipped threads where someone made an alteration.
Collectors Weekly: How did hats indicate the social status of women?
Langley: The higher their social strata, the more they patronized the French designers. Later on the American designers became more important, but they never had quite the same cachet as the top French designers. Working-class women would often see fashion plates in dressmakers’ windows. If they were handy with a needle, they might try to emulate the French styles. People were quite fashion-conscious.
Collectors Weekly: Could you tell us about the controversies surrounding plumage hats and hats adorned with whole birds?
Langley: Sure. Well, that went on for like a million years. In the book, there’s a little card from The Society for Abolishing the Wearing of Birds. It explains the damage to bird populations caused by wearing them for ornamental purposes. It was a movement led by the Audubon people in the 1880s and then later by Queen Alexandra, among others, to restrict the number of exotic feathers used by milliners.
The card is from the 1890s, but birds continued to be used. Even in the 1940s you saw bird feathers on hats. But there were laws prohibiting, for example, the use of birds of paradise. They were trying to get women to wear hats with barnyard fowl feathers and others that were not endangered or rare. Ostrich feathers were used forever. The protests were partially successful, though, and ultimately created awareness about the issue.
Collectors Weekly: What was the appeal of wearing an entire bird on a hat?
Langley: In part, I think it was that women became more assertive after they won the right to vote. These hats were also designed to attract men and to make other women envious. But they were also worn to perk up the wearer’s spirits. A lot of their reasons for picking plumage, let alone wearing a dead bird, might be hard for us to understand today.
Even some of the World War II-era hats had big feathers. Most of these came from ostrich farms. Cawston’s in Southern California was one of the most famous ostrich farms. Some people say they didn’t have to kill the ostrich, that they’d just pluck some feathers. I don’t know exactly what went on at the ostrich farms, but Cawston’s had ostriches hitched to carts that people could ride in and they made ostrich-feather fans. I have one in its original box. It has a picture of an ostrich-drawn cart on it.
I guess that’s one reason people did things to their hats—to be individualistic. There’s a picture in my book “Roaring 20s Fashion: Jazz” of a young woman in Egypt on a world tour. She and her family are riding camels. She’s wearing a great cloche hat and having a marvelous time. You can tell she felt at the height of style. You can learn a lot about the evolution of women’s rights and their attitudes from the hats, the vintage photographs, and the fashion plates.
Seeing a flapper dress in person is an amazing feeling because the fabrics and colors are so different from the way they look in a photograph. The beading is amazing. I forget where I read this, but flapper dresses represented the first time in more than a thousand years that it was okay for a woman’s legs to be shown to the knees.
Collectors Weekly: How long have people collected hats?
Langley: Hat collecting began as early as Marie Antoinette’s day. A nice used hat would be passed down to a maid or someone lower on the social scale. Then a lot of those people would sell them on the second-hand markets. In the last century there was an Englishman named Paget who collected hats, and in the 1940s R. Turner Wilcox wrote several books on hat collections. That was fairly early on.
Books like Turner’s (and mine!) are very good resources for aspiring collectors. They should read everything they can on the subject, but they should also familiarize themselves with hats by looking at as many of them as possible—in exhibits, at museums, anyplace where there might be a hat. In my part of the country, the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Costume Institute in New York City produces some wonderful shows. Kent State University in Ohio has a fantastic clothing collection. Of course, if you go to Europe, there are amazing places like the Victoria and Albert Museum.
If you’re collecting, go to the shows and ask the people you meet there if they have any hats. Older people that you know are also a good source. Ask them if they might have hats in their attic. If they do, ask them a little bit about the history of who wore them and when and where they might have been worn. Be sure to write everything down.
Collectors Weekly: Do you ever wear the hats in your collection?
Langley: No. I don’t think it’s a good idea to wear them, unless it’s something later, like a 1950s hat. But I wouldn’t even wear a pristine ’50s hat. I might try one on for a lecture, but not if it was a very early hat.
With an early hat, there will never be another one exactly like it. In other words, you develop a sense of responsibility. If I contribute to this thing’s downfall, I’m going to feel pretty bad.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most sought-after hats for collectors?
Langley: In the 1990s, the big Gibson Girl hats, those huge Gainsboroughs, were very collectible. Now, I’d say there’s more interest in hats that came later, between the 1920s and ’60s. The earlier hats are still very collectible and very pricey, but they’ve largely disappeared from the market. So people have been collecting designers from later periods such as the mid-20th century.
Basically the rarity of a hat comes down to its age and designer. If it has a provenance—if you have any record of who wore it, where it was purchased, etcetera—that would also make it more valuable. Of course beauty is another factor.
I recently saw a hat that was cut-velvet in a flame stitch pattern, which would indicate a very early date. It looked just like one of those Tudor berets or caps that Henry VIII would’ve worn. I’m pretty sure it’s not Henry VIII vintage, but I’ve looked through all my fashion plates, and I think it could be from about 1810. A collector of early hats would foam at the mouth over it. But a collector who is focused on 1950s designers might walk right by.
If you’re interested in hats, you should definitely learn as much as you can about lots of different hats, even the ones you may not want to collect, and examine them close-up. Sometimes sellers misidentify dates, so you should learn all you can about the different periods. It’s a big help, especially if an online hat seller posts a picture of the inside of the hat so that people who are knowledgeable can see whether the label is consistent with the given date. But in the end, if you see something and it just calls to you, whether it’s 1930, 2000, or whenever, you should just get it.
(All images in this article courtesy Sue Langley from her book, “Vintage Hats & Bonnets“)