A good hat is like a billboard that instantly communicates to the world the interests and social standing of the wearer underneath. Whether it’s a silk spoon bonnet decorated with lace and organdy flowers from the mid-Victorian era or a weathered beaver-felt Stetson from the 1960s, hats tell us a lot of the people who wore them, as well as the styles and fashions of the day.

When the Victorian Era began in 1837, bonnets with large, hooded coverings that framed the face were made out of satin and silk. Wide-brimmed straw hats trimmed with handmade fabric flowers were also popular. By the 1850s, circular bonnets became more sculptural and stiff—a decade later, these drawn bonnets had become oval, framing the face more naturally than the round ones that had preceded them.

Straw skimmers, also known as rounds, were worn outdoors—the best of these had patterns of silk braids, real feathers, and other decorative embellishments sewn onto their tops. At the same time, simple straw boaters with flat tops and brims came into vogue for both men and women. The origins of the design are difficult to pin down, but the Venetian gondoliers, who tied brightly colored ribbons around the crowns of their hats, were probably their inspiration.

In the middle of the century, top hats came into prominence. One of the hat’s most famous customers was Abraham Lincoln, who favored stovepipes, as the tallest top hats were often called, for formal occasions. Meanwhile, magicians reveled in what they could hide (or appear to hide) inside their top hats (white rabbits), while authors such as Lewis Carroll created top-hat-wearing characters like the Mad Hatter.

Throughout the Victorian Era, particularly after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, mourning hats to go with mourning jewelry and similarly somber attire were common ways for women to express their grief. Some of these mourning hats included veils to hide the face.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a Philadelphia hatter named John B. Stetson introduced a hat called Boss of the Plains. With its wide, flat brim and straight-sided, round crown, the hat was an instant success with anyone working outdoors. It was a particular hit out West, where the short-lived era of the cowboy was in full swing.

Everyone from Custer riding to his doom at Little Bighorn to Canada’s North West Mounted Police wore Stetsons—the wide, flat-brimmed hats became the trademark of the Mounties in ...

Although Stetsons are associated closely with the Wild West, English derbies, also known as bowlers, were far more common. Black Bart wore a derby, as did Butch Cassidy and his gang. But good guys also donned bowlers—the Pinkerton detectives who eventually broke up the Jesse James gang all wore derbies.

South of the border, the Panama hat was finding an audience in Ecuador. Unlike boaters and bonnets, which took their shapes in part from the structural properties of their materials, Panama hats were more like straw versions of felt hats, from fedoras to derbies.

By the end of the century, women’s hats were moving in two directions. Some were demure, almost too small for the heads they were perched on. Others had high-domed crowns and were piled high with loops of ribbon and drapes of rich velvet. Wide Gainsborough hats, sometimes called cartwheels, were so heavily decorated with feathers that laws had to be passed to prevent entire species of birds from going extinct.

As the 20th century dawned, boaters were the hats of Vaudevillians, yachtsmen, and horseracing enthusiasts, while politicians favored Panamas—Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing one in 1906 on a visit to the Panama Canal. By then, many of these hats featured black bands, which had graced Panama hats since the 1901 death of Queen Victoria.

In the Edwardian era, the Gibson Girl dominated fashion. The hallmark of the look was an hourglass figure and a big hat up top. Gainsboroughs were still worn, thanks to their popularization in the 1907 musical “The Merry Widow.” Smaller, but no less ornate, pompadour hats were a mirror of the popular hairstyle of the same name.

In the years before and after World War I, gigantic garden hats remained in vogue, but other trends were having an impact. Hats resembling berets and turbans began to appear, as did Musketeer hats. Tricorne hats, motoring hats, and straw boaters all had good runs toward the end of the decade. And as a precursor of the 1920s and the flapper era, close-fitting cloche hats were introduced.

For men of this era, the top hat was the unquestionable symbol of power and authority. Thus, J. M. Flagg’s famous World War I recruiting poster featured a version of Uncle Sam wearing a top hat. The hat fell out of favor after the stock-market crash, when it was associated with greedy fat cats, but it was revived in 1935 with the release of “Top Hat,” a film that gave audiences numbed by the poverty of the Great Depression a peek at the good life enjoyed by couples dancing cheek to cheek in top hats and tails.

Another popular men’s hat of the 1920s was the fedora—a medium-wide brimmed felt hat with a pinched-in front and a crease down the length of its crown. Until then, women were the fedora’s biggest customers, but in the ’20s men claimed the hat. In particular, the hat became a favorite of ruthless gangsters and the tough detectives that hunted them down.

Women in the 1920s went crazy for hats, especially the cloche. Cloche hats ranged from beaver felt dyed in a range of colors to tightly woven straw. At first, the brims of cloche hats were essentially extensions of the crown, dropping straight down on all sides with no rim, let alone brim. By the end of the 1920s, though, is was common for the cloche to be worn with the brim turned up, especially in the front.

Many cloche hats were worn unadorned, but lots of styles demanded ribbons, which could be tied to signal one’s availability to prospective suitors. A ribbon that resembled an arrow signaled that the woman was in a relationship, a knot meant the wearer was married, but a big bow was an eye-catching invitation.

In addition to the ubiquitous cloche, women wore sculptural hats resembling airplane wings or actual crowns. Felt hats were embroidered with Art Deco flowers, and kits were sold for just 89 cents so that women could make their own “crushers,” as they were called. Actress Louise Brooks made it acceptable to wear pokes and helmet hats, and so-called Speakeasy hats were studded with sequins and costume jewels.

Things sobered up a bit in the 1930s, but only a bit. Black, Sou’wester hats made of braided hemp continued the helmet look. In fact, straw hats went from garden to dressy, as straw cloches were woven with ecru to resemble smart tweeds.

Knit turbans took off thanks to Greta Garbo, the pillbox was introduced, and women even took to wearing sequined or rhinestone-accented calot caps, which resembled large yarmulkes and were first worn by the ancient Greeks. Colorful berets and pirate caps, as well as felt or stitched geometric Dutch Boys, added to the decade’s sense of style.

During World War II, the fedora reigned for men and women, mostly due to Ingrid Bergman’s look in the 1942 film Casablanca. Crocheted snoods designed to keep hair from getting tangled in machine parts were a counterpoint to Rosie the Riveter’s famous red with white polka dot headscarf. After the war, berets of crushed velvet and printed barkcloth gained ground, as did bandeaux, which weren’t really hats but looked like them from the front when padded and worn like a tiara.

Other hats of the 1940s included militaristic berets with platter-shaped crowns, small tilt or doll hats, bumpers of straw or felt, and increasingly exotic turbans, which had been popular in the 1930s and remained so during the war years. Some turbans were made of rich velvet and rose above the wearer’s head by as much as a foot. Other more humble creations were built out of cheap rayon and sold by Sears for 49 cents.

In the 1950s, hats almost resembled the costume jewelry of that period. The mushroom cloche and the melon hat were just two of the hats that took their shapes, and names, from food. Celebrities such as the Duchess of Windsor and Gloria Swanson wore casques, sailors, and large-brim hats interchangeably. Mamie Eisenhower wore an Air Wave hat to her husband’s first inauguration. Small, but visually arresting, cocktail hats were decorated with everything from dyed feathers to faceted beads, while bowlers, rollers, and Bretons were perfect for everyday wear.

Finally, in the 1960s, hats reflected the rising dominance of youth culture. The decade began with turban-like bubble toques made of feathers, prints, or mesh. Felt conehead caps and zippered Bobbie helmets exuded a Carnaby Street vibe, while fake fur was the fabric of choice for everything from pointed fedoras to pillboxes. Patent-leather jockey caps, from jet black to bright yellow, continued the Mod style. Even straw Gainsboroughs, which had been re-imagined as “flower power” sun hats littered with chenille daisies, now seemed entirely in step with the trend toward natural looks.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Des Chapeaux

Des Chapeaux

A French tribute to women's hats and other headwear from the 1940s... primarily magazine images, with some commenta… [read review or visit site]

American Hatpin Society

American Hatpin Society

Who knew there was so much to hatpin collecting? This site is all about great hatpin images - from recent hatpin co… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Men's Fedora Sz. 7 3/8 Adam Hat Co. Original Band And Leather LinerVintage Men's Brown Fedora Sz. 7 3/8 Lee 5th Ave.original Band-leather LinerVintage 1966 Stetson Genuine Panama Hand-woven Straw Hat Fedora 7 1/8Vintage Stetson Open Road 3x Beaver Hat Western 7 1/4 Free Us ShipVintage Knox Straw Brown Beige Fedora Hat With Lee Hats BoxRare -us Marine Corps-vintage General Officers Dress White Uniform Visor Hat/capTan "solar Straws" Genuine Panama Mens Straw Hat Vintage Size 7-5/8" Stetson Open Road 3x Beaver 7-1/4 W/ BoxVintage Knox Straw Grey Gray Fedora Hat With Band And Resistol BoxVintage Stetson Fedora Hat , Wide Brim, Size 7 1/4" Never UsedVintage Men's 60's Brown Stetson Fedora Hat Medalist Eagle W/box CarlsonVintage 1830's Woven Bonnet Silk Lined Hat 1800's AntiqueRoyal Stetson Fedora - "playboy" Style Wwii Era - 7 1/4Gorgeous Royal De Luxe St. Regis Stetson Hat In Mint Cond 1/4 Black Leather RimWwii -us Marine Corps- Vintage Wool Dress Blue Uniform Visor Hat/cap W/egaPair Vintage 50's Dobbs Fifth Ave Ny Knox 20 Fur Felt Fedoras Mens 7 - 7 1/8 Gorgeous, Near-mint, Vintage 40’s Stetson “st. Regis” Homburg, Gray, 7 ½ Vietnam War -us Marine Corps- Vintage Senior Officer Dress Uniform Visor Hat/capLot Of 5 Vintage Ladies Womens Antique Designer Hats*summer Weddings*floral CapsVintage Herbert Johnson For Brooks Brothers Brown Fedora Size 7 1/4 Gc EnglandVintage Eeme Boutique Rare Ladies Hat Straw, Black $ White W/red Trim Unsual Vintage 50's Knox Twenty 20 Fur Felt Fedora 7 1/8 Charlotte Hornets Logo Athletic Paintsplash Splash Vintage Snapback CapVintage Royal Stetson Stratoliner Fedora W/ribbon In Stetson Hat BoxBlack Royal Stetson Size 7 1/8 FedoraVtg Snapback Hat Cap Los Angeles La Kings Script Sports Specialties Nwa Easy EVtg Stetson Deluxe Royal Fedora Hat 7 1/4 40s 50s FeltLot Vintage Millinery Flowers 15 Cream Linen Roses Vintage Floral Wallpaper BoxVintage Mans Hat The Mallory Hat Co. 7 1/8Antique Orig 2 Boxes Full Of Victorian Hat Trim,makings,lace,feathers,velvet LotSplendid 40's Blk Felt Tilt Hat W/ Yellow Feathered Flowers & VeilLot 21 Vtg Ladies Hats Straw Wide Brim Rafia Pillbox Cloche Church Derby FedoraAuthentic Old Straw Boater HatAntique 1860 Hat/bonnet Straw & Navy Blue Satin Vintage OriginalVintage Stetson Royal De Luxe Open Road, Beige, 7Vintage Stetson No. 1 Quality Tan Felt Size 7 1/8 Cowboy Hat- With Box Vtg Stetson Straw Boater Skimmer Hat Stripe Grosgrain Ribbon 7 1/8Eye-catching 40's Pink Petal Tilt Hat W/ VeilingAntique Bernheimer Bros & Co. Ladies Hat2 Vintage 1940-50s Womens Cocktail Hats - Covered With Tiny Flowers Both GreatVietnam War -us Army- Vintage Senior Officer's Dress White Uniform Visor Hat/capVtg Stetson Twenty Five Open Road Hat Mens Size 7 1/8 TanAuthentic Vintage 1930's Custom Made Women's Felt Hat With Miniature Hats AttachWwii -us Army Air Force- Vintage Id'd Pilot Officer's Dress Blue Uniform Hat/capAntique 1929 Art Deco Silk Cloche Brim'd Hat W Gold Trims & Lining Excellent OssSize 7 1/4 Vintage '60s Dobbs Cushion-aire Felt Fedora Hat Guild Edge!Vintage Hats Lot, 20 Vintage Hats, Party Hats, Dress Up HatsBeautiful, Near-mint Vintage 60’s Borsalino “torino” Fedora, Blue-gray, 7 1/8th Vintage Stetson Fedora Royal De Luxe St.regis 7 1/8 GrayThe French Hat: Vintage '50s AlongÉ & Cie. Felt Fedora Size 7Vintage 1930s Depression Era Mens Hat Tweed Newsboy Size 7 3/8Lot Of Three Vintage Hats, Knox 7 1/4 & Pelana 7 1/8, With Hat Box! Really CoolResistol 20x Black Gold Cowboy Hat 7-3/8Stylish Previously Owned Dobbs Fifth Avenue HatVietnam War -us Marine Corps- Vintage Women Officers Dress Uniform Visor Hat/capVintage Pilgrim Fedora 1950's New Unworn Original Box Med Light Gray Size 7Spiffy 20-30's Blk Straw Cloche Hat W/velvet Trim & Buckle5 Vintage 1950s Cocktail Hats - Great Group Good Condition1940s Vintage Saucer Hats -- Lot Of 3 -- All With Labels!Vintage Ladies Hat With Pretty Flowers All Over & Face Net