Hats Across the Ages

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You can trace the origins of the wearing of hats as far back as primitive man. Historical evidence has shown that some form of head covering was used for protection against the elements.

Throughout early Egyptian, Roman and Greek times, the hat was worn as a mark of rank.

It is believed that felt, the most common material used in hat making, was originally discovered by the nomadic tribes of Asia who were known to have used felted sheep’s wool for making tents and clothing.

Throughout the centuries both men and women have sported various forms of headdress but it was only in the late 14th and 15 centuries that hats started to be worn. During that period hats for men played an important role in men’s clothing and were considered an important fashion item, unlike women’s hats which only became considered as a fashion item in the 18th Century.

As hats gradually grew in popularity during the 15th Century, an increasingly diverse range of materials were used for their production. Silk, velvet, taffeta, leather, felt and beaver were all favoured. During this period hat wearing differed between men and women. With women it tended to be restricted to the upper and middle classes as well as countrywomen, whereas with men it represented an essential accessory. During this period too, there was little difference in the hats worn by men and those worn by women. Many of the masculine styles tended to be sported by fashionable women and especially those belonging to the middle classes.

Men’s hats also tended to make a symbolic statement. The most notable being the formal tall stiff top hat representing the authority of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy and those who were involved in the professions and trades and the informal soft trilby felt hats which symbolised democracy and revolution and were generally associated with intellectuals, artists and country life.

Most popular men’s styles over the centuries

Capotain - Early 17th Century, originally came from Spain. It was a tall hat, with a medium brim and tapered crown. Made from felt. Most popular colour was black.

Sugar Loaf - Mid 17th Century - High Crown, stiff brim, it became associated with the dress worn by the Puritans.

The Tricorne Hat (Three cornered hat) - 18th Century.

Bicorne Hat - Late 18th Century - Most popular amongst artists and intellectuals.

Top hat - Mid 19th Century

Coke hat - Mid 19th Century - synonymous with bowler hat.

Panamas and soft hats - became popular head attire from the mid 1800s. With styles such as the pork pie in both felt and straw and the helmet in straw being introduced in the mid-late 1800s. After this period men’s hats varied little. To this day top hats and bowler hats continue to be worn for formal dress, with felts and panamas being worn for everyday wear.


The term milliner dates back to Italy in the 16th and 17th Centuries when it meant supplier of fancy goods, such as straw hats, gloves and other accessories that Milan was renowned for. It was only in the 1770s that the milliner started to design and make hats. The decorative aspects of millinery were most notable in France, although England was the originator and developer of many styles of hats.

By the mid 1800s, millinery had established itself as being on the same level as haute couture with the first important name in millinery being Caroline Reboux. Hats were designed specifically for the individual and were used to emphasise and even exaggerate their personal characteristics. During the late Edwardian period hats became very much a status symbol encouraging many more society women to develop their skills as milliners. Hats continued to be popular until the 1960s, when they underwent a steady decline. Millinery today has benefited from somewhat of a revival and the return of hat wearing is gradually becoming more common.