With festive Santa hats adorning many a head, Sarah Henderson investigates the history of hat wearing and how hats have changed from being an integral part of social classification and identity to a fashion statement.
A google search of “hats” reveals many varieties of hats available from many different retailers; beanies, warm balaclavas, fedoras, headbands are to name but a few. Yet such availability of a variety of hats does not necessarily translate into many opting to wear hats on a regular basis. How can this paradox of wide variety and current lack of regular hat wearing be reconciled? What explains this suggested apathy?
Delving into history, it is evident that the hat was, at its height, a clear symbol of your social class and consequently a part of your identity. Yet this is not so clear cut as one would imagine; far from assuming that the hat was most important for social classification in the Victorian era, hats had been a staple piece for many within society prior to this era. The tricorne hat, for example, most famously epitomised today in the film Pirates of the Caribbean by character Captain Jack Sparrow, was a well worn hat by men in the 18th century, having developed from the round, wide brimmed hats of the late 17th century. They were made from stiff felt, usually beaver or rabbit felt. Other large hats classified as ‘fancy’ had been worn for many years by aristocracy and monarchs, and would undoubtedly have been a key staple to any aspiring noble gentleman’s wardrobe. Most notably, during the civil wars the Parliamentarians were nicknamed “roundheads” because of their helmet head gear, and appropriated the name in order to distinguish themselves from those royalists who wore extravagant attire at the expense of citizens.
Yet undeniably, there was a shift during the 19th century towards greater variety and association of hats with societal class, increasing the popularity of hats and instigating the perceived cultural necessity of wearing one. From top-hats to boaters, bowler hats to panamas, the need to wear a hat suited to your class as well as personality was evidently a shift from the hat wearing of the established elite and select noble milieu of previous centuries. This peaked in the Victorian era, where luckily historians today have tangible evidence by looking at old photographs of the masses to determine different citizens wearing different hats. The era, typified by acute respect for manners and social etiquette, demonstrated the necessity to portray your class for all to see: top-hat for the upper class and wealthy; bowler for the well-to-do and middle class; and flat caps for the workers. Evidently this social stratum is no longer as prevalent, pervasive or important for current society. Perhaps, then, this acute necessity is lacking in today’s society, partially explaining the apathy towards regularly wearing a hat. Plus, for those who live in Edinburgh, it isn’t necessarily the most practical of garments; gale force winds would mean a high likelihood of replacing your hat on a near daily basis.
Notably, hat wearing was and is still not exclusive to men, even if certain stereotypes of hat wearers portray typically male hats (for example, the Victorian societal stratum according to hat wearing features hats worn by men alone). Women were expected to adorn their heads just as much as men, and also on a regular basis. Besides, the choice for women was often actually greater; a glance at cartoons of horse racing, for example, depicts many extravagant hats worn by well to do ladies as well as those who seem to be less wealthy.
Although not perceived as a necessity and regular staple of our wardrobes today, the popularity of hats has continued throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries. A glance at popular culture, leading men and even students today is all that is needed to assure yourself that the art of hat wearing is far from dead. The popular tv adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, for example, almost without fail depicts various 1920’s style hats for women and men; Poirot is rarely seen without his Homburg hat, and uses it as an extension of his identity. Similarly, prime minister Winston Churchill also wore the Homburg hat, and one would be hard pressed to imagine the man not wearing it. Today, although the older generation may stick to wearing hats familiar from youth, the younger generation often wear almost identically styled hats to these older men and women, in order to stand out from the crowd or as homage to a past era and style. The fundamental styles have remained fairly similar; you can still buy panamas, bowlers, trilbys and the like. However, a more practical or edgy emphasis is also abundant, with many shades of beanie and flat cap available for the discerning hipster. Or you can go to the Christmas market and other stalls and buy faux fur warm fluffy hats, which are perfect for winter weather (or, in Edinburgh, just weather).
Perhaps then the issue is not one of apathy; rather, it is one of a change in perception of the hat. Instead of being a normal regular garment, as it has been for many centuries past, it has now transcended to a more unique fashion and style garment. A piece to be worn as part of a carefully constructed identity. Or, more popularly, as an item for keeping warm. After all, that is what a hat is fundamentally for.