Of all the items worn during the years between 1900 and 1918, perhaps the most spectacular and varied were women's hats. Women's hats were large and heavily ornamented in the first half of this period, providing a good match for women's dresses. When women's styles grew sleeker and more closely fitting after 1908, hats got even bigger and carried even more ornament. No well-dressed woman appeared in public without a hat in this era, and fashionable women took great care to ensure that their hats were one-of-a-kind.
Women wore their hair very long in this period, and they then piled it atop their head in great mounds that provided a sturdy base for a hat. Hats were secured to the head with long hatpins stuck through the hat and into the mound of hair. According to fashion historian Elizabeth Ewing in History of Twentieth Century Fashion, these ornamented hatpins "had lethal projecting points which menaced anyone who approached the wearer too closely."
The more modest hats had a sturdy basic form made of felt or fabric, stiffened into shapes with brims and crowns of many different sizes. These hats could be ornamented with a feather or a giant ribbon, but they generally extended beyond the head no more than a few inches. More adventuresome women used hat frames that were made of wire, around and through which were weaved long strips of lustrous fabrics, flowers, strips of lace, feather, ribbons, and other ornaments. A single hat frame could be modified to create all kinds of effects or to match a particular outfit. One of the most popular ornaments was an aigrette, a tall spiky feather from an egret.
The most spectacular hats began to appear around 1908. As women's dresses got smaller, hats got bigger. One of the most popular hats was the nineteenth-century Gainsborough chapeau, a very wide-brimmed hat that sat high on a pile of hair. The round brim of a Gainsborough chapeau could extend beyond a woman's shoulders, and the addition of large puffs of ribbon or ostrich feathers might make the hat as tall as it was wide.
These large hats posed a problem for increasingly active women. Their great size made any quick movement very difficult, so they required many hatpins and hooks to secure them in place. As more and more people began to travel in automobiles, most of which had open tops, hatmakers developed special hat coverings, or veils, to protect hats and hair from wind and dust. These motor veils were usually large mesh veils that secured around the neck and covered most of the head. Some motor veils had just a hole for the eyes, and a few covered the entire head and face.
Perhaps the most famous hat of the period was the Merry Widow hat, created in 1907 by Lady Duff-Gordon (1863–1935; Lucy Christiana Sutherland), an English designer, for the play of the same name. Three feet wide and eighteen inches tall, the hat was liberally mounded with ribbon and feathers. Stylish women rushed to copy the style, but theater-goers in London, England, complained so loudly that such hats were blocking their view that this and other huge hats were banned from theaters. By the end of World War I (1914–18) such large hats would disappear altogether.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
[ See also Volume 3, Nineteenth Century: Gainsborough Chapeau ]