At the drop of a hat: a history of headgear

Shopping for hats in a Paris millinery shop, 1822

“Cock your hat – angles are attitudes,” said Frank Sinatra. While I would never disagree with Ol’ Blue Eyes, because I believe that a hat set at a rakish angle makes a statement in any era, I’d take it a step further. Sometimes the hat itself speaks volumes, all by itself, no matter how it sits on someone's head.

Cast your mind back to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January of 2017. The hundreds of thousands of pink knitted or crocheted hats atop the heads of a sea of protestors made an unforgettable sight and sent a clear visual message concerning the marchers' support of human rights, along with their criticism of the newly inaugurated President Trump.

Likewise, a red mesh trucker hat emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again” has become an unmistakable badge of a Trump supporter.

Phrygian caps adorned with tricolor cockades were
must-have accessories for French revolutionaries
And hats were especially important during the French Revolution, just prior to our Regency era. During that turbulent time a poor unfortunate who wasn’t wearing a hat associated with the revolt, or at the very least headwear displaying the revolutionary emblem of a red, white and blue cockade, could become a target of the mob. Wearing the wrong type of hat might ensure a trip to the guillotine, which would make a hat pointless. After all, why would you need a hat if you don’t have a head?

Revolutionaries wore Phrygian caps, a hat with a rich history that goes back to Roman times. Associated with the peasantry, this hat became a powerful symbol during the French Revolution, when it was better—and much safer—to look like peasant rather than an aristocrat.

The best way to picture a Phrygian cap is to take a look at Papa Smurf’s head. For some reason best known to his creators, Papa and his whole family wear Phrygian caps. It makes you wonder what those adorable midgets are really up to. Perhaps they’ve been conspiring with the mice in Disney’s animated Cinderella film – they wear Phrygian caps, too.

This hat has associations with the fight for liberty and antislavery movements around the world. In the U.S. it was even used on patriotic posters during World War I.

And it turns up in the darndest places – on the state flags of West Virginia, New Jersey, and New York, and it's part of an official seal of the U.S. ArmyIt's even on the seal of the United States Senate.

Plus, this red cap appears all over South and Latin America, too. You can see it on the coat of arms of Cuba, Nicaragua, Paraguay and El Salvador, and also on the state flag of Santa Catarina in Brazil. 

I must admit that Smurfs aside, seeing the hat gives me the creeps. It reminds me of the worst excesses of the French Revolution, as typified in the cartoon on the left by Isaac Cruikshank. Note the red Phrygian cap at the top of the guillotine, nestled between the two bloody axes. 

Hats have always been used to denote occupations (like a chef's toque, a firefighter's helmet or nurse’s cap), authority (the peaked hats of a police or armed forces officer), and above all, status. And nothing screams status like feathers.

During Regency times up through the Edwardian era, plumes have adorned the hats and heads of the rich and famous. They've been an indispensable part of evening apparel and military uniforms. And you can still see extravagant feather adornments on the fascinators and hats Brits often wear to fancy events such as royal weddings and the Royal Ascot horse races.

Rich titled women from centuries past through the present day are also fond of another type of headgear, the diamond tiara, to proclaim their privileged status. Although to be fair, it’s not just the aristocrats who like to flash a tiara – many an untitled little girl or bride-to-be has purchased a plastic tiara to wear to parties. And we mustn’t forget prom queens, either!

Poster from World War I showing
Lady Liberty in a Phrygian cap
Tiaras lead us to the ultimate status hat – a crown. Yet even that hat, despite its gold and precious gems, has its drawbacks. As Frederick the Great, a popular Prussian king whose life spanned most of the 18th century, remarked cynically, “A crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in.”

Crowns aside, hat-wearing declined throughout the 20th century. While they used to be required wearing for Sunday church services, even that practice has slowly died off.

The exception to this rule is the elaborate hats women in African-American communities often don to attend church services. The reason the women wear these hats, which coincidentally they call their “crowns,” is rooted in their interpretation of the Bible. The hats are symbols of their inner courage and faith. These church-goers may be single-handedly keeping the tradition of hat-wearing alive.

Jean Shrimpton, glamorous and
hatless in 1965. 
So, what almost killed the once-widespread custom of wearing hats? In the opinion of some fashion historians, hat-wearing was dealt two near-fatal blows in the mid-1900s, one by a sitting president and the other by a fashion model.

In 1960 the newly elected John F. Kennedy burst on the national scene with his beautiful wife and adorable children like a breath of fresh air. Following the grand-fatherly Eisenhower, the handsome young president brought a new style to the White House, where he was frequently photographed hatless, looking charmingly casual and modern, not to mention full of vitality. You couldn’t blame American men for wanting to follow his lead.

And a few years after JFK doomed hats for men, British model Jean Shrimpton did the same thing for women. When she was photographed in a white shift dress at the Melbourne Cup races in 1965, bare-legged with her long hair blowing unconfined in the wind, her carefree style was in sharp contrast to the formality of the women in the stands. Her beauty didn’t hurt, either. Suddenly, women felt dowdy wearing hats and hosiery. And they started leaving their hats in the closet. 

But hope may be on the horizon for those who love hats beyond the ever-present Stetsons and baseball caps. Hipsters with their porkpie hats, fedoras, and slouchy knitted beanies (which look a little like Phrygian caps, in my opinion) are working hard to make hats fashionable again.

And tiaras will never go out of style!

Emerald and diamond tiara, made in 1820, that once belonged to the
Duchess of Angoulême. It's now sparkling in the Louvre.

For more information on this intriguing fashion item, check out these sources:

Tim Gunns Fashion Bible The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet

Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible, The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet, by Tim Gunn with Ada Calhoun, Gallery Books, New York 2012


Hats, by Clair Hughes, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London 2017

Images in this post courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Maureen,
    I loved your article. I personally never wear hats unless it is freezing cold outside! But, I do own a knitted pink pussyhat! I hope hats don't come back into fashion, because then I will continue to be out of fashion!

  2. Thanks, Kay! I don't own any hats, either, that aren't for warmth or to keep the sun off my face!

  3. OK, so if hats symbolize an attitude of the wearer, and even reflect society-wide trends, values or symbols, what's up with all the young men wearing knit caps? It certainly isn't to hide balding heads, since a 20-something guy typically has years ahead to show of his voluminous hair.

    Could it be that young men need to hide unwashed hair? Then that's not a very good recommendation for the state of grooming in males intent on finding mates. So what is the reason -- lazy, comfort, looking like rugged fishermen wannabes, or imitating a Navy Seal? I don't get it. And just to add a final note: What's up with the man-bun trend?

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think it's interesting that some version of a knit cap has been worn by men for centuries. Other styles in men's fashion come and go but the knit cap remains!


It's a Blog Revival

The Regency Looking Glass is back! I have some good news - I'm happy to announce that The Regency Looking Glass (which I started in 2013...