Hats have always been the crowning item in a man’s wardrobe. Chiefs in primitive cultures wore elaborate headdresses to identify themselves as leaders of their clans. Jewel-encrusted crowns have been popular with monarchs for millennia. And hats were so familiar as symbols of status to the ancient Romans that newly freed slaves received special hats to make sure they could move about as free men.

In the Western world, felt, leather, fur, and straw have long been the most common materials used by hatters. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, lower-class men in many areas of Europe were forbidden from wearing furs or fine embroidery, and their headwear reflected these laws. Commoners’ hats of this time were often made of felt or skin and looked like caps. Courtiers’ hats, however, were wide, with feathers, embroidery, and jewels. These hats were less practical and more symbolic, with no well-defined brim to shade the eyes or ward off the elements.

It was in the mid-1500s that headwear began to get noticeably taller. Caps were still worn by the lower classes, but taller, brimmed hats, adorned with feathers and made of felt, beaver, or other soft skins, were popular with the wealthy from about 1550 onward. The 1600s saw wider brims in men’s hats, morphing into the Puritan-style wide brim we associate with the pilgrims and Plymouth. Men in France and Spain wore wide, upturned brims like those immortalized in The Three Musketeers.

Brims became narrower in the 1700s, notably in France. Tricorne hats, like those worn by soldiers in the Revolutionary army, were popular with the upper classes. The lower classes wore them as well, though in leather or felt, and without the plumes of the aristocracy. In the second half of the 18th century, the modern top hat began to emerge in England, where relatively narrow-brimmed hats with high, rounded tops became fashionable in the 1780s. The opposite was true for the European and American peasantry, who wore wide brims and low tops, spawning what would become the cowboy hat.

By about 1820, the top hat had virtually replaced the traditional tall English hat. The top hat was worn by all classes of men for all occasions. Variations ranged from simple cylinders to hats with curved sides and upturned brims.

Top hats in various styles would remain popular until 1849, when London hatter William Bowler changed the style drastically by designing a short, rounded hat meant to be worn to the races. In England, the hat was called a bowler, after its creator, but in the United States, the hat became known as a derby, for its association with the track. The bowler was common among all classes for most of the Victorian era, while the top hat was preferred by the upper classes and for formal occasions.

The lower classes of this period often wore caps that we think of as Irish-style or newsboy caps. These were made of felt or tweed wool, and were often made in plaid or herringbo...

In America, different stylistic innovations were afoot. By the second half of the 19th century, cowboy hats were a well-established style. One name in the hat business from that era that is still a powerhouse today is Stetson. Founder John Stetson is said to have got his start in the hat business when he made himself a wide-brimmed beaver-felt hat for a hunting trip. These hats were light and easy to make, requiring no tanning of the material.

Soon Stetson founded his company and popularized the style among cowboys, gentlemen, and even the U.S. military. He called his hat "Boss of the Plains," after his time hunting and working in the American West. The "Boss" was soon the standard for western wear, and Stetson was forever synonymous with the word "hat" in America.

With the rise of industrialization in Western Europe and America, men could afford to own more than one or two hats. Seasonal hats quickly became the rage. In the spring and autumn, men wore derbies or similar hats with a scrunched peak, often called a trilby. Top hats were worn in the winter, and a major innovation in summer wear came at about the turn of the century—straw hats.

The most popular straw hat was the Panama. Men valued them for their elegant style, lightweight construction, and cooling straw weave. A more American and European variation on the straw hat is the straw boater, a low, flat-topped hat with a wide brim and a colored band. At the turn of the 20th century, this was the hot summer look.

Fedoras appeared in the 1920s. This medium-wide brimmed hat with a pinched front became the standard headwear for men throughout the year, though the bowler was still preferred by some. Varying styles of the fedora and trilby continued to emerge. For example, the flat-topped pork pie hat became connected to jazz and blues culture. Then there was the homburg, which was almost the same thing aesthetically as a fedora, except its brim was stiff and fixed rather than bendable.

As the 20th century drew to a close, the brims of hats became smaller, and by the 1960s, hats were no longer a necessary part of everyday fashion at all. To the consternation of many, baseball caps and Irish-style caps replaced many types of more formal men’s hats. In recent years, though, the fedora, pork pie, and trilby have seen a resurgence of popularity among younger generation, for whom all things old are often the most hip.

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]

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [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]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Lot Of 7 Felt Hats ! 71/4 Borsalino, Dobbs, Stetson,etcStetson Open Road 7 5/8Vintage Dobbs Fifth Ave Ny Straw Fedora Hat Baskin Brown Size 7 1/4 Nice!Vintage 90s Starter Sports Specialties Chicago Bulls Bears, Colts Snapback LotVintage Stetson Fedora Hat 3x Beaver Karoll's Chicago Dark Brown Size 7 1/8 NiceVintage Antique Silk Collapsible Top Hat Stove Pipe The Printz Co.Vintage Stetson Xxxxx Beaver Cowboy Hat Ranch Tan With Box Size 7Vtg Tan Feather Felt Wool Mens Western Native Hat Glass & Feather 7 1/4 UniqueAntique Vintage Dobbs Fifth Avenue New York Bowler Hat Sz 7 3/8" Original Box Vintage Resistol 10x Beaver Cowboy Hat...silver Grey Size 7 1/8Hutmacher Zapf Austria Hat, Handmade, Black With Green Trim 7 1/8 Eu 57 22 1/4" 117 Vintage & New Baseball Cap Skater Dad Hat Collection Cars Trucker Hats LotVintage Stetson The Open Road 3x Xxx Beaver Fur Fedora Hat 7 1/4, UsaVintage Resistol Western Cowboy Hat 7 3/8 Silver/beige Beaver Nib ! 3 XinbVintage Mens Australian Akubra Hat-size 64-banjo Paterson-pure Fur Felt-heritageVintage Gray Borsalino 50s Mens Felt Swing Fedora Wide Brim Hat Size 7 1/8Lot Of 13 Vtg Snapback Hats Nba Nfl Green Bay Packers New York Knicks ScriptVintage Stetson Twenty Five 25 The Open Road Hat 7 John B Stetson CompanyNos Vintage 90s Starter Shockwave Velcro Hat Cap Uf Gators Nwt Florida Wool BlndStetson Western Buffalo Fur 3x Hat 7 1/4 12 Bark Great Plains VtgStetson Jbs 4x Beaver White Silverbelly 7 1/2 60 Long Oval Cowboy VintageVintage Carhartt Work Cap 1950's Very Hard To Find Union Made Size 6 3/4 NeatBeautiful Mens Worth & Worth Black Fedora Size 7 1/2Vintage Space Jam Snapback Hat Cap American Needle Rare Looney Tunes Nba Bulls YVintage Polo Sport Script Ralph Lauren Strapback Hat Black Nylon RareVtg (new) Old Stone 500x "verzashe-exotic-cowboy Hat- Shantung New Hat 7 1/4Vintage Knox Fedora Hat Felt Brown 7 3/8Stetson Cowboy Hat 100% Genuine Size 7 1/4 Rancher - Vintage Box Vintage Lock & Co. Fedora Navy Blue Size 7 1/2Vintage Ralph Lauren 90s Men's Polo Bear Strapback Baseball Cap Vintage Snapback Lot Of 25 Sports Specialties Logo Athletic Hat Cap 80s 90sPair Of Vtg / Antique 1930s Auto Workers Caps Newsboy Work Wear OriginalsVintage Stetson 5 Xxxxx Tan Wool Rench Western Cowboy Hat Size: 71/4 M.l. Leddy "leddy Roper" Hat 7 5/8 Resistol Self Conforming Made In Usa Vintage?Huge Lot Of 45,vintage Trucker Hats,caps,assorted,never WornVintage Adam New York Quality Men's Hat Fedora 7 3/8, Style: Harley Color: IronResistol Vtg 60s 70s Western Hat Sz 6 7/8 S/m Tan Corduroy Concho Band CowboyNos Vintage 94 Toronto Raptors Snapback Hat Cap Script Nwt 90s Nba BasketballVtg Chicago Bears Sports Specialties Hat Snapback Cap Nfl Griswold Script TwillVintage Polo Ralph Lauren Burgundy Golfing Hat Clean Black Bowler / Derby Hat / Man Or Woman 1930 Era Felt Fashion / Size 7 3/8Vintage Stetson 5x Beaver Felt Jbs Cowboy Hat Sz 7Vintage Stetson Xxx Open Road Silver Belly Regular Oval Sz 7, 2 3/4" Brim W/ BoxKnox New York Men's Silk Or Beaver Stovepipe Top Hat...inside 22 3/4" Size 71/4Vintage 90s Tommy Hilfiger Jeans Strap Back Hat Cap Dad Hat Flag Logo Denim BlueAntique Vintage Mr. Disney Man's Fedora Hat "station Wagon" Model & Incredible HStetson The Parker's Reno, Nevada 4 X Beaver Western Hat In Box Sz 7 1/4 BrownVintage Resistol Cowboy Hat 7 1/4 Chamois 4x Beaver- Like Stetson1830s Mens Black Top HatVictorian 19th C Mens Black Top HatVtg Knox Americana Mens Brown Fedora Black Band Red Feather Hat Size 7 1/8Vtg Mallory Fifth Avenue Gray Felt Mans Hat With Original Box Size 7 1/4"Stetson 4x Beaver Hat Vintage Cowboy Rancher 7 1/4 Unworn John B 581930's Vintage Black Derby/bowler "emerson" Size 7-1/8Vintage New Holland Trucker Mesh Snapback Hat Cap Wytheville Va Patch VirginiaDobbs Fifth Avenue Size 7 3/4 - 62 Genuine Shantung Panama Fedora Hat Never WornVintage Men's "the Stetson Special" Straw Boater / Skimmer Hat (7 1/8)Outstanding Vintage Men's "dobbs" Black Derby / Bowler Hat (7 1/4)(19) Vintage Snapback Hat Lot Mesh Trucker Cap Tractor Agricultural AdvertisingVintage Royal Fur Felt Bark Brown Stetson Fedora With Band Size 7 3/8 Euc