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In & Out of Fashion: Hats

This article is adapted from research I compiled for authors Rick Wilson and Tom Bentley for the launch of their newest novel's website. You can read it in context at Swirled All the Way to the Shrub. The questions posed to me prior to writing were: what was standard hat etiquette for men and women in the 1920s and 30s? When did daily hat-wearing go out of fashion?


Hats have largely served functional purposes for hundreds of years. Prior to the invention of automotive travel, men and women were greatly subject to the elements while outside of their homes or during long trips. A good hat was one that reflected the fashionable mode of the day but also served the utilitarian function of keeping the head warm and dry. While women’s fashion took great liberty with the hat during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, men’s headwear remained largely the same. Variations on the classic top hat, bowler and fedora were common as fashionable trends naturally shifted over time. But, by and large, men’s headwear did not shift dramatically the way that women’s did. In general, women’s fashion has often shown a propensity to modify and evolve at a much faster rate than men’s fashion.


Nineteenth century western culture dictated clothing etiquette in a way that may seem bizarre to contemporary readers. Time of day, activity, and level of privacy determined the role for an entire ensemble, alongside the practical issue of weather. Upper class women might change clothing several times a day, as fashion dictated different dress fabrics and sleeve styles for morning, afternoon and evening. Some women, often with the assistance of a maid, simply switched long sleeves to short throughout the day to keep up with fashion. Many dresses were made in such a way as to encourage this practice.


For someone living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hats served not only practical purposes, but ones of etiquette as well. They could be in one setting a sign of respect, while in another, tasteless and rude. A societal tendency towards formality was long informed and valued by Victorian custom, and upheld until well in to the modern era.


Brooks Brothers top hat, ca. 1930. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Rodman A. Heeren, 1960

In Emily Post’s seminal book Etiquette from 1922, she explained hats within the context of Salutations of Courtesy:


“A gentleman takes off his hat and holds it in his hand when a lady enters the elevator in which he is a passenger, but he puts it on again in the corridor. A public corridor is like the street, but an elevator is suggestive of a room, and a gentleman does not keep his hat on in the presence of ladies in a house.


A gentleman always rises when a lady comes into a room. In public places men do not jump up for every strange woman who happens to approach. But if any woman addresses a remark to him, a gentleman at once rises to his feet as he answers her.

If a lady drops her glove, a gentleman should pick it up, hurry ahead of her—on no account nudge her—offer the glove to her and say: “I think you dropped this!” The lady replies: “Thank you.” The gentleman should then lift his hat and turn away.


If he passes a lady in a narrow space, so that he blocks her way or in any manner obtrudes upon her, he lifts his hat as he passes.”


Hat etiquette was not limited within society to men, but extended to women and children as well:


“One should never call out a name in public, unless it is absolutely unavoidable. A young girl who was separated from her friends in a baseball crowd had the presence of mind to put her hat on her parasol and lift it above the people surrounding her so that her friends might find her.”


In an essay on etiquette in Vogue from 1923, the author writes to inform modern women of the proper way to approach getting dressed. An editor’s note frames this etiquette advice:


The farmer's daughter seem to have forwent her hat while performing her daily chores. Vogue, Feb 15, 1923.

“In this article, Vogue shows the stupidity of too elaborate dressing in a workaday world and begs the would-be fashion-plate to suit her clothes to circumstances, for smartness’ sake.


In minor ways, many things change from year to year. One season it will smart to wear hats to restaurants, and the next it will be considered quite otherwise. But the days are quite gone when every woman put on an elaborate velvet or cloth costume especially designed for lunching and afternoon visiting. Now unless attired for a hard morning’s shopping, or a tramp in the rain, a smart woman is unlikely to change the character of her dress for lunch, even if she wishes to change any particular part of it.”


In this way it is made clear that while men were subject to a great deal of societal etiquette in relation to their hat wearing, women were being encouraged by fashion to dress practically to their daily situation. With more women entering the workforce and being afforded the luxury of automotive travel, the formality of decades prior slipped away and was replaced with new rules which better accommodated the changing times. In general, woman were expected to wear hats when outside their homes. If attending a formal evening event, a hat would not be required. Within this, there was a great freedom for women to experiment with both highly fashionable cloches or practical headwear.


Many news sources point to the inauguration of JFK as the “end” of formal hat wearing in western culture. But as Hanna Brooks Olsen wrote for Medium in 2017:


“In the collective memory, JFK has been frequently blamed for the downfall of the hat. This is due in large part to our anachronistic recollection of his inauguration on January 20, 1961. Kennedy did, in fact, forgo his hat during his swearing in and speech, as seen in file footage. Looking at the film, however, it’s clear that he’s not the only one without a lid; many people in the audience, even after the part with the hand on the Bible, are not wearing covers.


‘It is true that Kennedy almost never wore a hat after becoming president,’ reads a Snopes article about this particular theory of the hat’s demise, ‘but his hatlessness was much more likely the continuation of a trend that had long since begun, not its origin.’”


Olsen goes on to explain what Robert Krulwich posited for NPR in 2012: “perhaps the hat’s fate wasn’t the result of a sartorial choice, but rather one related to infrastructure.” As more and more people forewent public transportation—walking, biking, taking trains with roomy ceilings—for automobiles with limited headroom, a tall, warm hat was no longer a practical choice. If Vogue’s etiquette guidelines from 1923 were any indication of trends to come, practicality within a modern age would dictate fashion, and not the other way around.


Sources referenced:

How Cars and Hygiene Killed the Middle-Class Hat by Hanna Brooks Olsen for Medium, Sept 11, 2017.

Post, Emily. Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1922.

Vogue Essays on Etiquette. Vogue; New York Vol. 61, Iss. 04, (Feb 15, 1923): 57, 84, 86.

Who Killed Men's Hats? Think Of A Three Letter Word Beginning With 'I' by Robert Krulwich for NPR, May 4, 2012.

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