History of hats

From the bowler to the boater and the flat cap to the fascinator, the British love of hats is in a league of its own with traditions that date back centuries. We trace the nation’s love affair with headwear and the history of hats.

In the 18th century Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (played by Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess pictured here) was as well known for setting trends © AF archive/Alamy

Britain is a nation of hat wearers, of that there is no doubt. From the Artful Dodger’s battered top hat to Winston Churchill’s homburg, the history of the country can be told through the hats that have graced the heads of some of our most famous luminaries. Traditionally hats are a very loaded item and have almost totemic power in their ability to signify class, gender, occupation and a myriad of other stations. Even the protocol has symbolic value; from doffing your hat to launching mortar boards in the air, hats have long been associated with rituals and practices stretching back into the mists of time. With the Royal Wedding throwing British millinery back into the spotlight the time is ripe to take a tour of Britain’s heritage through its headwear.

The humble flat cap can be traced back to medieval England and was even the subject of Tudor sumptuary laws. In an attempt to spur on the wool trade an Act of Parliament was instituted in 1571 decreeing that all males over six years old (except for the nobility) had to wear a wool cap on Sundays and holidays, with a penalty of a fine if they refused. The non-aristocratic association stuck and the flat cap became an icon of working class culture in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Charlie Chaplin in his trademark bowler hat © Photos 12 / Alamy
Charlie Chaplin in his trademark bowler hat © Photos 12 / Alamy

Ask anyone you meet which hat most coherently symbolises Britain and the answer is clear: the bowler. As with so many of our traditions, it was born in the Victorian age. The bowler was the brainchild of Lock and Co who has been fitting hats on royal heads since 1676. Its store on St James Street in Mayfair is a cornucopia of millinery apparatus and artefacts, from a hat owned by Wellington to Victorian instruments for measuring and drawing your head (still in working order). In 1849 Lock and Co commissioned Thomas and William Bowler to create a hardwearing hat for a Norfolk farmer, with the purpose of protecting gamekeepers’ heads from tree branches as they rode around country estates. The practicality and strength of the hat caught on, and before long no businessman was fully dressed without one.

The hat was a trademark of a number of characters, from John Steed in The Avengers to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, but no one has truly made the bowler their own quite like Charlie Chaplin. The Little Tramp, icon of silent-era comedy, certainly had a penchant for accessories, so much so that one of his famous bowlers and a cane was sold last November for $62,500!

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson as drawn by Sidney Paget for The Strand Magazine © Alamy

Archaeologist and heritage interpreter Sally Pointer specialises in reconstructing and creating historical hats. When asked about her favourite she comes down in favour of yet another classic: the deerstalker. It may be crystalised in the popular imagination as the hat of choice of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s interesting to n ote that there is not a single mention of him donning a deerstalker in any works by Arthur Conan Doyle. The deerstalker was a vital aspect of the Victorian gentleman’s hunting ensemble, worn on country estates but not in the city, and as such it certainly would not have featured in Holmes day to day life around Baker Street. The association came about when illustrator (and contemporary of Doyle) Sidney Paget gave Holmes both a deerstalker and Inverness cape for out of town adventures such as The Boscombe Valley Mystery. The connection stuck and an icon was born, albeit an inaccurate one. But for Sally Pointer this is all part of its charm: “the willingness on our part to accept a little eccentricity in an overall look fits the way the British approach hats perfectly.”

The Edwardian era was a golden age of millinery. Ornamentation became ever more elaborate, with a cornucopia of flowers, birds, lace, ribbons, bows, feathers and artificial fruit regularly gracing heads in an opulent display of conspicuous consumption. Hatpins were essential to secure these creations to the head. The lengthy pins were useful for discouraging dangerous advances on the street, so much so that laws were proposed to ban this secret weapon in many cities around the world. Hats were still a necessity in public in Edwardian Britain, the Suffragettes even remained beautifully behatted when chained to railings and campaigning for the right to vote.

Jackie St Clair attends the first day of Royal Ascot in Berkshire © Press Association
Jackie St Clair attends the first day of Royal Ascot in Berkshire © Press Association

But the hat hasn’t always been a symbol of propriety. Britain’s rich street style and subcultural heritage has often seen the hat become somewhat subversive. Anthropologist Ted Polhemus cites the pork pie hat and the Mod subculture as the perfect example. Originating in the mid-19th century, the pork pie hat (named for its resemblance to the dish) was the hat of choice for many well-dressed Victorian city dwellers, but morphed into a key element of London street style a century later. Influenced by the Rude Boy culture from Jamaica – who in turn were influenced by the trilbies and pork pies of American gangster movies – the pork pie continued to evolve and became a defining look of the ska and rocksteady clubs of Two Tone, made famous by Jerry Dammers, founder of The Specials. Equally, not wearing a hat was seen as an act of rebellion. Polhemus recounts BBC footage of bare-headed Teddy Boys stealing a man’s hat on the street which visualised the moral panic that the Teds inspired.

During the 1940s the headscarf turban was popular for women working in factories, to stop long Veronica Lake-style hair from getting caught in machinery. The turban of the ‘Land Girl’ symbolised the war effort, patriotism and utility, while throughout the 50s hats became an essential aspect of French couture houses, keen to re-establish their pre-eminence on the fashion stage. By the 1960s, though, the rise of car ownership and the burgeoning Youthquake ensured that hats were no longer needed either as protection from the weather or as a demarcation of class.

The Duchess of Cambridge meets guests at Buckingham Palace in a pale pink creation by Jane Corbett © Press Association

There has been a renaissance in hat wearing in the 21st century, thanks to a welcome boost in 2011 when the Royal Wedding coincided with the 300th anniversary of the races at Ascot, ensuring a vintage year for hats. Rachel Trevor-Morgan, milliner to The Queen since 2006, acknowledges the benefit of the Royal Wedding for the whole British millinery trade. A member of The Worshipful Company of Feltmakers, Rachel has created hats for such memorable occasions as The Queen’s 80th birthday Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s as well as her Diamond Wedding celebration. Rachel cites the Royal Family, and the Duchess of Cambridge in particular, as crucial for the comeback of millinery, describing her as a “wonderful ambassador for hat wearing for the next generation.” Meanwhile, Stockport Hat Works  Museum – the only museum in the country dedicated to hats and hat making – is more popular than ever, and staff have noticed a distinct increase in headgear on their visitors.

With hats undoubtedly in the ascendent, what marks Britain out on the world stage is the sheer number of hats we can call our own. When France has the beret, Spain has the Cordobés and Mexico has the sombrero as defining features, why do we have so many? Historian Matthew Ward professes an obsession with hats ranging from medieval liripipes to Georgian cocked hats, and believes that the variety of headgear in Britain reflects our multicultural background, with the legacy of such diversity ensuring Britain doesn’t have a single national form of dress, let alone a national hat, with our headgear reflecting this rich cultural heritage.

A new breed of 21st-century hat-makers has picked up the millinery mantle and is succinctly making it their own. One of the shining stars is Piers Atkinson, whose background with Zandra Rhodes gave him an appreciation of colour and kitsch that has been featured everywhere from Italian Vogue to Tatler. His surreal creations – giant cherries being a best seller – have graced the heads of everyone from Kate Moss to Dame Shirley Bassey who wore one of his hats to Ascot. Atkinson uses established techniques such as wood blocking and hand sewing to create contemporary pieces that have a basis in tradition.

Fred Butler is an accessories designer who has made hand-crafted pieces for the likes of Björk and Lady Gaga. Taking the art of adorning the head to a new level, she shows her collections at London Fashion Week and was nominated for UK Young Fashion Entrepreneur of the year. With hat making in her blood (her grandmother was a milliner) she cites the financial climate as the motivating force behind increase in popularity, claiming “sales of red lipstick inflate in eras of economic downturn and it’s the same for accessories, especially those that frame the face.” Noel Stewart’s hats can be found on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and on the heads of a new generation of hat wearers that includes Keira Knightley and Lily Allen. Stewart celebrates the addition of hats to a modern wardrobe, declaring that hat wearing gives a sense of freedom and individuality.

This spirit of experimentation is the lifeblood of Britain’s sartorial history, and a heady combination of heritage techniques and eccentric style have found their way into our 21st-century wardrobes. Hats off to that.