By Kylin Cummings

The history of hats goes back a very long time. One of the first evidence of hats was found in a Neolithic cave drawing depicting women in turbans.

Early on women were expected to cover their heads with veils, hoods, or caps.  Structured head wear started to be worn by women in the late 16th century.  By the early 18th century, women’s hats stopped being used purely for a utilitarian reason – as a sun shade – and turned into an ever-evolving fashion accessory.

Bonnets were a popular form of Victorian head wear. In the 1850s, modest, circular bonnets sat back on the head to show off a woman’s face. Colorful accents, such as tiny bunches of artificial flowers adorned the bonnets. The wide bonnet strings hung down and were held by a brooch or pinned beneath the chin.

With the massive arrangement of hair at the back of the head in the late 1860s and 1870s, bonnets were worn further forward and had a cut out in the back to allow the hair to flow freely.

Many hat and bonnet styles persisted into the late 1870s and 1880s.  Small-brimmed hats, toques and tiny bonnets set on top of the head were styled to increase height. Crocheted chenille hairnets or snoods were popular for indoor wear and worn outdoors under these hats. During the summer, wide-brim straw skimmers continued to be stylish. 

During the 1890s, hats prevailed over bonnets, which were relegated to elderly women.  Hats became wider-brimmed and worn high on the head.

Hats continued to grow larger with dipping brims and lavish trims in the 1900s.  Hats developed wider crowns with gigantic brims to accommodate fuller hairstyles of the time.  By 1911 hats were at their largest, often with the brim extending beyond the wearer’s shoulders.  The size of the hats prompted countless jokes and complaints about obstructed vision at theaters.

Feathers of all kinds were the favored trim of this time.  Feathers were so popular that various plumage laws were created to restrict the usage of endangered species. 

During the First World War, hats decreased in size, sat lower on the head and, generally speaking, became quite plain due to materials being in short supply. Large plumes and ornate decorations were considered unpatriotic because it suggested that the wearer was more concerned with her own appearance than with the war effort.

In the 1920s, cloche hats rose to fame. It was worn straight and low, almost down to the eyebrows.  It complemented the era’s hairdo, the bob. Brims were optional but usually utilized only on summer hats, where the brim acted as a visor from the sun’s rays.

In the 1930s, the hats were plainer, owing in part due to the bad economic times. Hats continued to fit close to the head and many had very little to no trimming. Older hats were often “modernized” by remaking them and adding new trims. In the late 1930s, hairstyles lengthened and hats grew.  Toques, turbans, and high tilted berets reached great height.

The 1940s many of the same styles of the 1930s were worn throughout the Second World War.  Ladies doing manual work during war time would tie up their hair in stylish snoods and casual kerchiefs.

After the war, hats were often very small, covering only the crown. Hatpins held them in place and a round wire loop at the back helped keep them secure. Later in the 1940s, more dressy large brimmed hats, called cartwheels, became popular.  Many of these hats had a slight downward curve and were exotically trimmed with feathers or rhinestones.

The 1950s saw many women choosing not to wear hats on a regular basis. Hats remained small and close to the head and often had a short veil. They were now touted as the essential accessory to complete the ensemble.

Hats started to lose favor by the 1960s. Hats were larger, bolder, less formal and worn less because of the bouffant hair styles. The hat of the 1960s was Jacqueline Kennedy’s elegant deep pillbox, usually worn far back on the head. 

The Sharlot Hall Museum has 231 woman’s bonnets and hats from 1850s-1960s in the permanent collection.  Come see a selection of 19 bonnets and hats that represent the different styles of each era in the temporary exhibit case in the Lawler Center foyer. 

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.