A Brief History of Millinery

Early Hats and Headdresses

The origins of the hat can be traced as far back as our primitive ancestors. At first, people would have worn simple head coverings as protection from the elements, such as leaves to shield the eyes from sun or fur to protect the ears from cold. 

Felt, the most common material used in hat making, is also the earliest form of fabric made by humans. One of the most impressive early examples of felt hats is a collection of richly decorated felt caps found in Denmark dating to the Bronze Age (about 1500 BC). Their elaborate trimmings suggest that these caps must have formed part of ceremonial dress for important members of the society. They may also have served as a kind of battle helmet, their thickness providing protection against cuts and blows. 

Ancient Chinese 
Han Dynasty felt hat 
circa 200 BC
Bust of an 
Egyptian Pharaoh's
'Crowning' of the winner of
the Olypmic Games

As civilisations and cultures sprang up across the world, hats quickly began to take on significance as a mark of rank and social standing. The headdresses of Egyptian Pharaohs marked their social high standing, just as crowns do today. In Ancient Greece, winner of the Olympic Games was crowned with a wreath of olive leaves. There was no monetary prize - the wreath symbolised honour and status, and Olympic winners were treated with veneration and celebrity. 

In many eastern and Mediterranean cultures, women wore headscarves, veils and cloth wraps as a mark of modesty, marital status or religious affiliation.

The Milaners of London: A Trade is Born

Throughout the centuries, both men and women have sported various forms of headdress, but it was not until the 14th and 15th centuries that hats began to emerge in western culture. Hats quickly became an essential fashion item for men, but it wasn't until much later that women began to wear hats as a mark of status, fashion and ceremony.

'Mrs Williams' by
John Hoppner, 
The term 'milliner' was first used in mid-1500s London, to describe a seller of women's fashion items imported from Milan in Italy, such as ribbons, gloves and finest quality Milan straw.  In later centuries, it came to mean a maker of straw hats and bonnets for women.

As women's hats gradually grew in popularity, an increasingly diverse range of materials were used for their production. Silk, velvet, taffeta, leather, felt and beaver were all favoured. 

Bigger is Better: Millinery in the 1800s 

Bonnets dominated women's fashion throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. These were elaborately decorated with ribbons, lace, flowers, feathers and trims. Richly embellished bonnets indicated the high status of their wearers. 

Meanwhile, the majority of men's hats were made from felt or straw, simply trimmed with Petersham ribbon and perhaps a feather. Some of the most popular styles included the top hat, a tall, stiff, formal men's hat worn by the bourgeoisie and aristocracy and those who were involved in the professions and trades; and the soft felt trilby, which symbolised democracy and revolution and was generally associated with intellectuals, artists and country life.

Eventually, hats and bonnets became so entrenched in women's fashion that it was deemed inappropriate for a women to venture out in public without her hat and gloves.

Since the first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875, women's hats have become a vital feature of most horse racing events. During the spring racing period, milliners would be inundated with clients hoping to turn heads with ever more flamboyant and original headpieces.

Slim and Simple: Early 20th Century

Women's hats have enjoyed tremendous diversity throughout the 1900s. At the turn of the century, most hats were enormous, wide-brimmed affairs overflowing with veils, trimmings and tulle, but following World War I and with the influence of Chanel and Poiret, women's fashion became increasingly minimalistic. Women wore straight, dresses, short bob hairstyles, and small, brimless hats like the cloche (French for 'bell').

bonnets from Ladies' 
Journal, 1913
By the 1930s, New York had established itself as a great capital of western millinery. European designers flocked there to build their careers within its high fashion culture. Many of New York's famous department stores housed their own millinery workrooms, so that wealthy women could order hats made to measure in the styles of the day.

Audrey Hepburn wearing
a white pillbox hat, 
circa 1960

The Decline of Made-to-Measure

As the world experienced two great wars in quick succession, the standards of etiquette around hat-wearing were forgotten. Working women found hats impractical in their day-to-day activities, and with the constant threat of air raids, it was difficult to rush to shelter while gripping at an ornamented bonnet.

And when ready-to-wear clothing was popularised in the 1950s and '60s, many people simply stopped visiting their dressmakers and milliners. Instead, women began to sport increasingly complex sculptured hairstyles, and one simply cannot put a bonnet over a beehive 'do.Only a few simple styles could be worn over such hairstyles. American first lady Jackie Kennedy popularised the pillbox hat, which she wore over her signature bouffant hairstyle.

A Royal Endorsement

It wasn't until the 1980s that women's hats began to see a revival, influenced by style icons such as Lady Diana Spencer, who was a passionate hat-wearer. But Diana was only following the lead of her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, who has been called 'the Queen of Hats'. Elizabeth has worn more than 5,000 hats during her reign.

Elizabeth II, the 'Queen 
of Hats', circa 1950
Elizabeth II
in 2007

Lady Diana Spencer,
circa 1980

Women's Hats in the 21st Century

Today, hats are being seen more and more in women's casual dress. Wide-brimmed floppy  hats and cloches are popular winter wear, while straw sunhats and flat caps can be seen on sunnier days. 

And, as ever, the spring races are when the peacocks spread their feathers. The Melbourne Cup is Australia's premier racing event, and every year, a new wave of fresh and fascinating hats can be seen gracing the tracksides. In recent years, race hats have tended toward smaller accent pieces called 'fascinators': stylish arrangements of feathers, flowers and veiling which sit elegantly over a coiffed hairdo without crushing it. 

Contenders for Fashions on the Field at the Melbourne Cup

Hats once held a high degree of symbolic meaning. They were markers of wealth and class, of a person's profession or marital status. The class system no longer operates in Australia, and dress codes are more variable than ever before, and so the rules that have governed hat-wearing in the past are no more. As milliners continue to explore non-traditional materials and develop new techniques, women's hats will continue to evolve, new styles will emerge, and those of us who are passionate about hats will continue to turn heads.

More About Historical Hats

If you are interested in browsing hat styles across the centuries, we recommend the blog Hats From History.

This site contains hundreds of stunning images of hats, bonnets, helmets, hairstyles and fashion sketches ranging from archaeological finds to the mid-twentieth century.
  ClocheTop hatOlive WreathStraw BoaterPillbox Hat