Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

The secret language of hats

The secret language of hats

They used to be a social statement. Matthew Sweet doffs his cap to the best-dressed heads of the past

They used to be a social statement. Matthew Sweet doffs his cap to the best-dressed heads of the past

Matthew Sweet | June/July 2019

In 1952, Charles Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat recalled her Victorian childhood, “the torture of hats…fixed to the armature of one’s puffed-out hair by long and murderous pins”. A bare head, her parents insisted, risked chills or sunstroke. This was an excuse: the hat was a social statement. That language is now mostly lost. If we were transported back to, say, a Parisian café a century ago, we’d understand little of the discourse in felt and flowers going on above the heads of the clientele. Which means that the statements of today’s hat-wearers are louder than those of their predecessors. Baseball caps declare classlessness – at times unconvincingly. Men who wear hats indoors are rarely taken seriously. Wide brims offer extravagance with a cordon sanitaire. The Darwins’ code is now extinct. A hat no longer implies submission to social rules. It signals individualism. If it remains a torture, it’s one for which the sufferer demands credit.

Market Day in Ravenna c.1950
They’re not G-Men. They’re not Mafiosi. They’re just the male population of Ravenna, popping out to get some cheese, in the days when the fedora was near-compulsory. Some theorise that the hat fell from fashion after the second world war because it reminded men of their army days. In Italy, perhaps Marcello Mastroianni’s luxuriant quiff was partly responsible. But in 1950 “La Dolce Vita” was a decade away. Here, photographer Jean-Philippe Charbonnier has captured hats darting across the square, like the goldfish in the flooded crypt of San Francesco.

Lillian Russell (1860-1922)
In 1886 ornithologist Frank Chapman went twitching in Manhattan and made 525 sightings – all dead, disarticulated and lending their plumage to New York’s women. The fashion for hats frothing with feathers, and sometimes providing perches for entire stuffed birds, was driven by figures such as Lillian Russell, “America’s beauty”, a comic-opera superstar from Pittsburgh. Russell had a rugged political hinterland – she unionised the Ziegfeld girls and fought for women’s suffrage – but had no common cause with the women who campaigned successfully for America’s first bird-protection laws. Her muff (not pictured) was constructed from blue-dyed ostrich feathers.

She’s all hat
Large black felted hat, Maison Margiela, POA. Black double crepe wool cape jacket, Maison Margiela, £2,335/$3,045

Jackie Robinson
When was this photograph taken? Half a century ago? Last week? If you’re a Major League fan, you’ll recognise the player who broke the colour barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But his headgear won’t help you find the date. The baseball cap blurs distinctions between decades as it does between classes. It’s the headgear of presidents, police officers and pimps. Migration from the stadium ubiquity has rendered it almost meaningless, and certainly robbed it of the idea it once conveyed – sportsmanship.

Tania Mallet 1960
Is this a hat? It seems to be more a momentary coincidence of white feathers and air. John French’s portrait is of actress Tania Mallet. Generally she preferred modelling – higher rates. No such pragmatism here. She’s wearing a hat whose sole function is to show off her own beauty.

Girl with a pearl
Black bow hat, Mother of Pearl x Prudence Millinery, POA. Spotted dress, Mother of Pearl, £595/$895

A Day at the Races in Ghana 1961
Ghana, four years after it was forged from the material of the Gold Coast, and the Lancashire-born photographer Ian Berry is at the races because, somewhere, so is the Queen. The men in their kente kufi caps show we’re in west Africa. But the seated racegoer in the bucket hat may be demonstrating her languid half-interest at the Kentucky Derby or Royal Ascot. Dress codes for such events were legislated by Beau Brummell at the beginning of the 19th century. One of Berry’s principal subjects is Englishness. At the Accra Turf Club, he found the ghost of it.

Jacqueline Kennedy 1961
JFK disliked hats. This, as much as his straight white teeth, demonstrated his freshness and modernity. Jackie Kennedy sympathised: hats made her head look big. But rules for First Ladies are different, particularly in public. Enter Roy Halston Frowick, a dissolute millinery genius who spent the late 1950s living in the Chelsea Hotel with a beagle leashed to his doorknob. Halston had the same head-size as Jackie the pillboxes that suited him also suited her. She wore a pink variant to ride across Dallas on November 22nd 1963. It was only one of the things she lost that day.

Keeping her cool
Cordobes black felt hat, Eliurpi at MatchesFashion.com, £270/$353. Chestnut and ivory mix crepe polka dot dress, Rejina Pyo, £725/$1,050

Bolivian traditional dress 1997
“I am the unnoticed, the unnoticable man,” intones A.S.J. Tessimond’s poem, “The Man In The Bowler Hat”. Post-Magritte, we associate the bowler with surreal blankness, but it was designed for gamekeepers, navvies and men toiling at the oily end of capitalism. British railway workers brought it to Bolivia in the 1920s, where Quechua and Aymara women recognised its unassailable practicality. The bombin thrives there still – made locally, but keeping off rain worthy of the old country.

Monsieur Datte 1955
Henri Cartier-Bresson took his camera to vineyards of Chouzy-sur-Cissé in 1955. Monsieur Datte was their owner. Was he also the winner of a competition to find the most French-looking person of that year? The black beret appeals to a stereotype fixed in British minds since the 1820s, when onion sellers – known as Onion Johnnies – brought their trade over the Channel. How glorious to see Datte père living up to it, toasting himself behind a barricade of his own bottled produce. Even his dog is lost in admiration.

Brim and bear it
Oversized straw hat, Lola Hats at MatchesFashion.com, £570/$735. Asymmetric dress in Japanese white natural denim, Renata Brenha, £850/$1,100. Bonanova natural woven shoes, Pla, £89/$117

PHOTOGRAPHS BRIDGET FLEMING
STYLIST Katy Lassen