There was a time in this country when adults, both men and women, were considered not completely dressed for certain situations unless he or she was wearing a hat. Certainly, shopping and working in the city was one of these situations (and, for women, gloves were also an absolute necessity). Even college students were expected to wear hats at schools in urban areas. Church definitely required the wearing of hats and there were even special “cocktail” hats for women to wear to evening parties. The regular wearing of hats became outmoded during the 1960’s and never really took hold again. For good or ill, unless a hat is part of a work uniform or the occasional accessory worn for fun, hats are simply not a significant part of our sartorial lives. Although I would never advocate for the return of stringent dress codes, I feel that maybe we lost an opportunity for bringing beauty into our lives when we abandoned hats. And I’m not alone in this opinion. As Dr. Linda Przybyszewski points out in her book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish (a current favorite of mine!), a received piece of wisdom from the pre-sixties dress experts was that a hat worked to bring the eye of the observer up to a woman’s face–the true communicator of her unique personality and spirit. “A well-chosen hat can flatter any face,” says Dr. Przybyszewski, and this is true. If you look at vintage photographs, it’s astonishing how well hats of all styles can frame a woman’s (or a man’s) face.
So what has changed? My theory is that because hats–apart from ball caps–aren’t worn anymore on a regular basis, it’s difficult for many of us to wear one without feeling as though we are wearing a costume. Wearing a hat well, and in a confident manner, requires a certain “swagger.” For example, Cookie Lyon–the character that Taraji Henson plays on Fox TV’s Empire–has swagger to spare, and the hats that she wears come off as essential parts of her beautiful (and expensive!) ensembles rather than as cartoonish or awkward.
Of course, the place where hats can still rule the day is church–and nowhere more so than those churches that are traditionally and predominantly African-American. Hats are an indispensable part of the Sunday ensembles of many of the women who attend the churches. As Craig Marberry, one of the co-creators (along with Michael Cunningham) of Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, writes in his introduction: “These captivating hats are not mere fashion accessories. Neither, despite their biblical roots, are they solely religious headgear. Church hats are a peculiar convergence of faith and fashion that keeps the Sabbath both holy and glamorous.” This book is well worth checking out for its wonderful black and white portraits of women in their hats. Each woman gives a short account of her own life in hats, and these stories are as engaging as the pictures. My favorites are elegant Ollie McDowell wearing her black portrait hat and beautiful Sandra Wright Wallington in her feather-trimmed and tiger-printed platter chapeau.
Are you interested in hats and their history? If so, check out The Hat: Trends and Traditions by Madeline Ginsburg. The book goes up only to the late 1980’s but it is an otherwise thorough history of the hat and its permutations–from the helmets and hair nets of Bronze Age Europe, to the extravagant, ornately trimmed bonnets and top hats of the early nineteenth century, to the elegant men’s trilby hat of the 1950’s. And for some really delicious looking women’s hats, look no further than Vintage Fashion Complete: Women’s Style in the Twentieth Century by Nicky Albrechtsen. This gorgeous, heavy volume, lavishly illustrated with color photographs, takes you through the decades of vintage from the 1920’s and beyond. The chapter on hats provides particularly stunning examples of the best of the milliner’s art. I particularly like the 60’s helmet made of bright green feathers that looks exactly like a Christmas tree and the 1930’s floral fantasies of Elsa Schiaparelli. Hat aficionado or no, this book is an absolute must for any lover of vintage fashion.
One of the most celebrated, and prolific, of American milliners was Sally Victor. Her pretty (sometimes wacky) hats were popular from the mid-1930’s through the late 1960’s. Here’s a link to the extensive collection of Sally Victor hats owned by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For an example of her work, see the top of this post.
Do wear hats or wish you could? What is your hat style preference?