‘A woman’s education consists of two lessons: never leave the house without stockings, and never go out without a hat.’ So decreed Coco Chanel — and who could argue with the woman who invented the little black dress? Up until the early 1900s both men and women wore hats every day — no matter who you were, or what you did. But thanks to two world wars, rationing and the spread of car ownership — not enough headroom inside — the poor old hat gradually went out of fashion.
In the Sixties, women liked to show off their sculpted hairstyles. But far more relaxed looks have become the norm in the decades since, so why hasn’t the everyday hat made a comeback? Cordelia Bradley, a Hong Kong-based milliner, blames the popularity of disposable, casual, mass-consumer fashion. She’s probably right. After all, most hats — unless we’re talking baseball caps — don’t go that well with jeans and a T-shirt.
Luckily for benighted milliners, the more formal hats seem to be making a comeback. At smarter race meetings — both in summer and in winter — they are now a must-have item whether compulsory or not, and they are gaining a decent amount of traction at weddings, too. Just take a look at the crowds at the Cheltenham Festival or the Epsom Derby and you’ll see hats galore. The fascinator — in my opinion a poor excuse for headgear, often consisting of just a small piece of sinamay and a sad, lonely feather — has fortunately fallen by the wayside and big, show-stopping hats are seen more and more. (Of course, that’s not to say that all fascinators are rubbish. There are some lovely and original ones about — but the vast majority of them should be banished… or burnt.)
Winter hats and less formal styles are becoming more fashionable among the country set, too. I kept an eye on the outfits on display during the trot-ups at Badminton Horse Trials last month and noticed many younger riders, male and female, sporting jaunty trilbies or fedoras.
What makes a hat revival even more likely to gain traction is that you no longer have to go to a super-pricey milliner to get yourself a smart and stylish one. One of my favourite winter hats (a navy trilby with tweed trim) cost me £65 from Christy’s of London — not quite high street, but hardly a blowout, and you know it will last.
The right hat can certainly do wonders for your face — highlighting the better features, hiding the bad (not to mention dodgy hair days) — but they do also attract attention, which may not always be wanted. This, I think, goes some way towards explaining why a hat isn’t part of everyone’s daily attire. Because wearing one is seen — particularly among the under-30s — as a form of attention-seeking.
After hats fell out of fashion, it was mainly eccentrics and people making an active effort to stand out from the crowd who embraced the daytime hat, which helped to make them seem ‘edgy’. If you look at the people who still wear them, it’s a strange mix of country folk with an eye towards tradition or practicality and middle-class east Londoners who want a ‘statement’ look. But the daytime hat seems to be making progress back into the mainstream and I think it’s time to get rid of its social stigma.
There are certainly plenty of options out there. Lucy McCormack — another milliner, this time based in London — says there’s never been a wider choice of hats. Ever since Yves Saint Laurent sent black wide-brims down the catwalk a few years back, the high street has embraced them. Pop into Topshop and there will be a selection of both summer and winter hats in different colours, styles, shapes and — importantly — sizes.
So we are making headway. Some may think that forcing people to wear hats — inside the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, for instance — is a pain in the neck. But I think it helps the cause. Once you’ve been made to wear one, you catch the hat bug and there’s no going back. If you don’t believe me, then just try a couple on. Any milliner will be glad to see you, and you’ll probably end up buying three or four. And what’s wrong with that?
After all, you need a hat for every outfit, don’t you?