A Brief History of Hats
At its simplest, a hat is any garment worn on the head, whether for practical purposes or for protection from sun, weather, or cold. Hats have been used in many ways throughout history. They have been ornamental, used to denote a specific social status, used for practical purposes, and worn for artistic reasons. The forms and kinds of hats have had almost as much variance.
One of the oldest kinds of hats is the wide-brimmed straw hat. Probably worn to protect against the sun, these can easily be constructed by weaving straw, or by sewing straw braid in concentric circles. Because straw is readily available in agricultural areas, the straw hat probably followed almost as soon as humans started growing grain. It also has the advantage of being relatively easy to replace.
Most of the earliest hats were probably worn for protective reasons. However, it also probably didn't take long before they became decorative or symbolic. In ancient Greece and Rome, the Phrygian cap, a kind of pointed, curled skullcap, was awarded to freed slaves. Crowns, of course, signified royalty, and certain kinds of hats have often been used to denote priests and other clergy.
Through most of history, hats were either made of stiffened fabric, felt, leather, or straw. In modern times, you can add plastic and other man made materials to this list. Hat shapes have also varied over time. From simple, hoodlike styles and skullcaps, to the elaborate shapes of the tricorn and top hat, headwear and the way it's constructed have evolved.
In general, women's headgear in the early part of the Medieval period was oriented towards modesty. It was expected that the hair would be covered by a veil or kerchief. In the late 15th century, more elaborate hats began to be seen, and these eventually became the structured women's hats of the 16th century. Slowly, these hats moved away from the modest ideal and became ornaments in their own right. It was at this time that the first makers of women's hats specifically came into being. The first milliners were merchants who imported straw for hats from Milan and other regions. Women's hat fashions progressed rapidly from this point on.
The bonnet was the mainstay of women's headwear up until the mid 19th century. Around the 1850s, these hats became seen more as something worn by older women, and other styles became popular. These include the tiny hats of the 1880s, and the boater of the 1890s, developed from sport styles. This latter development was important, since it was the first time that women's sporting wear had influenced mainstream fashion. Hats of the Edwardian era became enormous, and sometimes sported whole flower arrangements or birds.
After WWI, the 1920s saw the development of the cloche, a small, helmet like hat that complemented the newly popular bob. Millinery continued to expand through the early part of the century, but custom hats were soon pushed out by ready to wear ones in the 1950s. Since then, hats for women have decreased in popularity – they're no longer a must-have item for every outfit. Hats are now more likely to be worn for special occasions or for fashion statements than as part of everyday clothing. However, this offers us more options when it comes to choosing whether to wear a hat, or what style. The beginning of the 21st century is one of the most flexible times in fashion history, meaning it's easier to follow your own impulses, especially when it comes to hats.
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