When thinking about the fashion of the late Victorian period, many people likely have elaborate gowns, fans, and jewelry cross their minds, as well as dapper suits and curled moustaches. Fashion of the 19th century is very distinct and clearly changed from one decade to another. But in the 1890’s there became one iconic staple of clothing that helped define the decade: the hats. Hats in the late Victorian-early Edwardian periods were diverse, fantastic, and unique. Both women and men saw changes in headwear that are interesting to explore. So let’s take a dive into the chapeaus that shaped two decades.
Headwear for women in the early 1800’s mainly consisted of deep bonnets with fine decoration on them. This changed throughout the 19th century, though, as women’s hats progressed from bonnets, getting smaller and moving further forward on the head. These changes were often prompted by changes in hair styles, and as they began to pile their locks on top of their heads, which changed where the hats had to cover. By the 1890s, hats were most commonly worn on the top of the head, varying in size and shape.
In an 1897 edition of The Glass of Fashion Up to Date, an American life and style magazine, there are several examples of the latest fashions for women, including several examples of hats. Many of the hats described were made with straw or a fabric, such as silk, and might be dyed different colours, like black, red, or green. The material often would set a colour theme for the hats and their decorations, which would be chosen to complement the colouring of the wearer.
These chapeaus were elaborately trimmed with ribbons, feathers, lace, buckles, and fantastic flower arrangements. They could include many different flowers, such as poppies, lavender sprigs, violets, and geraniums. Along with the flowers, some included aigrettes, which are stylish plums, made with feathers from egret birds, which were highly desirable. Others might include even have whole taxidermy birds or bird wings attached, which were often preserved using arsenic. These hats often had wide brims, with flowers circling the crown, creating almost a wreath on top of the head of the wearer. Others might have one or both sides of their hat with the brim turned up, and sometimes a sailor style would be worn, which had the front of the hat’s brim turned up, making almost a crown shape on their head.
Of course, for informal events or occasions, the hats selected might be far less elaborate. Some even bordered on masculine, with many women donning plain, straw boater hats, often with little more decoration than a simple hat band. In winter months, some worn plain toques or hats made from velvet or another fabric.
When it came to hats for men, who were expected to don a chapeau whenever they went outside, there were several styles that were popular. Top hats and tall hats dominated for evening occasions, with their flat tops and thin brims, but for day-to-day there was a bit more variety. Bowler or Derby hats became popular, with their rounded tops and brims. Homburgs were also on the rise, with their wide brims and dented tops, as were trilbys, which had thinner brims. Straw panama hats became increasingly popular and were good for warm days, along with woolen sporting caps. A cheaper alternative to both were fabric caps, or newsboy caps, often worn by members of the working class.
By the 1920s, the interest in big hats had largely died down. Women’s hats became smaller and more subdued, and men continued to ditch the top hat, and then other formal headwear. Nowadays we don’t see hats as the fashion “must” Victorians did, but the images that were created of beautiful and fantastic chapeaus will continue to be iconic representation of the by gone times of the 1890’s and 1900’s.
BONUS- Author’s favourite hat photographs: