A sadly brief history of hatwearing in 20th Century Britain

Stitched up Samantha asked – How do you wear a hat without looking and feeling silly? It’s an interesting question! At one time everyone in the UK wore a hat, at least when they were out. Why has the hat fallen out of use? Today I am going to have a quick look at the history of the hat as it was actually worn in Great Britain (rather than by fashion models and film stars). Most of these photographs were taken close to where I live now and I recognise some of the settings.

Modern history of the hat

1900-1914 The Art Nouveau S-shaped fashion required a large hat to top off the look. These images were taken in London in 1905-06. These wonderful hats got larger and larger until, in 1911 they came out as far as the shoulder. The cyclist is having a little trouble with her hat – hat pins from this period are often very beautiful as well as functional in keeping the hat attached to the up-dos of the day. I love these evocative photographs and practical but elegant outfits.

First world war

The war altered fashion in the sense that it changed the political and economic role of women. Hairstyles became simpler as did the hats. Too much ostentation was frowned upon. Practical outfits became more fashionable. The skirts were much shorter, showing the ankle and some leg, and women even wore trousers for work. Many outfits were just men’s wear with a slight twist – the police officers wear ties and jackets, but with skirts instead of trousers. The hats are similar to men’s. The picture of men queueing to join the forces shows how at this time all men wore hats – the different styles denoting different class backgrounds. As you can see, the relatively well to do women going to see a film at the end of the war are all wearing hats. The older lady is wearing a very dated outfit, whereas the younger women all wear large brimmed everyday hats. One younger woman is experimenting with a short brimmed hat that is about to become fashionable.


In the 1920s the youthful look became fashionable. The smaller cloche (bell shaped) hat now had its day, as the crown grew to cap the head entirely. For the first time women began to dress in more “masculine” shapes, wearing their hair short and choosing hats with very small brims. I really love these 1920s cloche hats and would happily wear one today. The rule in the 1920s was never to leave the house without the head covered, and these low fitting hats required the wearer to look out from under the brim, appearing rather haughty and independent.


In 1936 people did their Christmas shopping in hats. All the ladies and children are wearing hats. Brims are back to reveal longer, curly hair, and to create a slightly masculine look of a fedora, with a tailored suit or coat.

Daily Mail photograph
Daily Mail photograph


While I love all historic hat styles I am particularly taken with the 1940s, when hats were still de rigeur but there was lots of experimentation and fun. There was less conformity in terms of style and people were happy to experiment. Due to the restrictions of wartime hats were a vital method of introducing individuality and style. Not everyone was a dressmaker but most could change the trimming on a hat. And those that could sew were able to make hats from the offcuts and non-rationed materials. In fact hat materials were not rationed. Now people would use feathers, veils and bows to create an individual look.


Here are some images from 1950s Oxford street. At first I thought they were the same group of three with their similar permed hair styles, their shawl collars and handbags. But all we are seeing is a fashion or a uniform way of dressing to shop in cold, damp London. While we often believe that hats were still being worn after the Second World War they were not, in general. Designers worked with milliners to create a look, and the envelop art often suggests a hat, now women were free to please themselves and they did not generally bother with a hat. More women were working and they perhaps had less time to work on their “look”, although a higher disposable income meant they could buy more clothes. During the 1960s the hair became much more a focus of attention with backcombed beehive shapes, and elaborate fuller hair dos, sometimes supported by hairpieces and wigs.

Since then hats are no longer a necessary item for men and women. Now they are either practical or a luxury.  Sam’s concern about looking “faintly ridiculous” arises from the fact that hats are not the norm any more, haven’t been for a generation or more. But the opportunity to wear something beautiful near your face, that complements and brings your outfit together, should be seized. For drama and glamour I don’t think there is anything to beat a hat. Here are a few images from the V&A which often has fabulous exhibitions of vintage hats. Which is your favourite, and would you ever wear one?





32 Responses

  1. sweatyknitter

    The advent of the popularity of the car (not a lot of headroom for hats), owning and regularly using cars instead of walking (hats keep one’s head warm and/or shaded from the sun), and washing one’s hair more frequently all contributed to the demise of the hat’s popularity. That said, I have an array of hats I wore with business attire when I worked in a city that was sunny and hot 9 months of the year. (Few other people did, which I thought odd given the weather.) Found not only did it prevent sunburn 🙂 but my head felt cooler when wearing hats! Further, I was REGULARLY stopped and my hat complimented, oddly enough more often by men than women!

  2. Patricia Clements

    I’ve not often found a hat style that I thought very flattering on me. Bangs are difficult to deal with, although I do have a couple of practical hats for rain and sun, think of a duckbill hat with a rain flap in back. Back in my childhood and youth,in the late 40’s (born in 1944) and 50’s, I would wear hats to church, etc, but by the late 50’s early 60’s I was shut of them. I did love my dark salmon/orange sack dress worn with long strands of beads, the scandalized nearly everyone at church. My husband is a dedicated hat wearer and wears a hat every day.

  3. Vicki

    I wear a sunhat when necessary and do have a couple of winter hats to wear if it is particularly cold and I’ll be outside for a while. But I hate hat hair. And I can’t seem to find hats to suit my long face.

  4. Jenny

    My favourite is the cloche but I really loved the 1940’s hats.

    I had to wear hats for my job in the mid to late 60’s, when nobody else was wearing them. I recall a lovely yellow straw one with wide, upturned brim and in the winter a cheeky French beret and a gorgeous cloche hat was my favourite. I had the right hairstyle for hats then, the Mary Quant bob was perfect for a hat. I had to travel for my work, using public transport so a hat was useful as well as pretty. Now I wear straw hats in the hot weather to protect from the sunshine or wooly hats to walk the dog in the winter.

    • Jenny

      My 15 months old granddaughter LOVES to wear a hat which is very unusual as most children that age pull them straight off. We all went to a wedding last Saturday and I made dresses from the same fabric for both girls and Primark straw hats to which I added matching ribbon. They looked so beautiful and wore them for ages. Perhaps they can start a new trend for hat wearing.

  5. eimear

    I wear a sun hat only now. I used wear berets and bucket hats, but they tend to suit bobbed hair best (and now I am growing a bob again, perhaps I will get these out!) I have been looking at some vintage patterns for hats from the 50s, they were quite ‘tidy’ and seem to be a variation on the beret, and I am thinking of trying one soon. Love the photo of the 1930s, those school boy hats are so cute. In Ireland hats seem to have died off in the 80s which was a time that some women still wore hats to church. Feels so quaint thinking of it now!…..

  6. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    Lovely pics, those Edwardian ones are my favourites, but the blue cloche at the end is ultimate swish style! The best part of the steampunking is getting to wear hats, and seeing all the blokes looking particularly dashing with their mad hats and extravagant whiskers.

    Nice article!

  7. Catherine

    My favourite is the straw boater ( but without the flowers). I’ve had one for years, and although it’s pretty faded and tatty, I still wear it a lot in the summer – it makes me feel jaunty. I bought it from a stall in Cambridge market in the 80s, and in fact, there are frequently hat stalls in markets and street fairs, with an emphasis on quirky bowlers for women, cloches, etc.

    There are two less positive connotations to hats for me. They have unattractive associations of conformity and 1950s customs: they go along with those unwritten but powerful rules about what to wear to church, the importance of gloves, when not to wear trousers ( if you were a woman) and always wearing a suit or sports jacket (if you were a man). Secondly and far less seriously, while today’s extravagant women’s hats make ‘Hello’ a pleasure to giggle over, I do often feel they look absurd, pinned at a crazy angle for no apparent reason (I sometimes feel quite sorry for the Duchess of Cambridge, dragooned into headgear so often). So hats can be ‘stuffy’ on both counts, for me.

  8. Anne

    I love the blue cloche.
    My husband thinks I suit most hats. I certainly suit some but don’t have much occasion to wear them. Not since giving up hats to church in the 60s. No longer necessary for weddings etc.
    I wear a hat for golf (sun protection in sun, rain hat in rain and warm hat in winter) but not otherwise, generally. Hat hair in golf is a huge issue!

  9. Jane

    I love looking at hats but never think they suit me. W is a big fan of them and is in the process of assembling a collection for which we are going to have to find a suitable storage solution if he continues! My grandmother always wore a hat, especially for church, and I remember she once kept one on for the entire drive from London to Aberdeen! I really like the cloche hat but love the drama of the one on the far right.

  10. Sox

    My favourite hat is the blue cloche.
    I have a number of hats I wear summer and winter. They are very practical, I burn like a marshmallow in the summer yet we have very cold winters, but still look, I feel, quite fashionable. I’ve gotten over feeling silly wearing them and receive compliments whenever I do.

  11. April

    I always wear a hat in late autumn, winter and early spring that are shaped to cover the ears, being warm supersedes everything. So the blue one would be the hat of choice but it doesn’t look as though it passes the ears test.
    You have made me think though, balaclavas (can they be called hats?) were fashionable during the 50s and some were shaped to cover the neck and shoulders so I could be more fashionable than functional if I made a few of these for winter. Also I wouldn’t need a scarf.
    Have fascinators replaced hats? Hate the term myself.

  12. Hélène

    Thanks for this fascinating history of hatwearing. Great selection of pics! I would certainly not wear any of these fancy hats, because I would feel costumed, but I’m glad that simple hats are back in fashion these days. In the summer, straw hats, fedoras and other sun hats add instant style to a boring outfit. Plus, they are fav by men and women alike, which is great for everyone. And I’m even happier that beanies, slouch berets and other warm hats are now in style for the colder months. Given our harsh snowy winters here, it’s a blessing. I remember when I was young in the 80s and 90s, I would only wear woolly hats for sports or in extreme weather, like a snow storm, and I was freezing most the time!

  13. Joyce Latham

    Thank you Kate for this informative post.
    I choose the last photograph as my favorite, but I like them all!
    You are so inspiring, I’m soon to be dawning more hats….and I know you will be bringing more of your hats makes to your blog, that will be fun fun fun to follow.
    My son-in-law wears a hat on a regular basis, and so does little grandson Henri. He is well known in our neighbourhood for his page boy hat. Super cute.
    Hats….are fabulous and I’m glad you will be taking a serious interest in them.
    Till we chat again

  14. Sue

    Hats are interesting. I have a whole collection and this winter I have taken to wearing hats in public, and I am determined to not feel ridiculous. Hats have a functional purpose as well as completing the outfit – in the winter they keep my head warm, and in the summer they keep the sun off my skin. I think we need some sort of world wide hat day!

    • fabrickated

      I wear weather hats Lynn, but not so much outfit hats. But I am going to try. I think they are interesting and stylish, but present a bit of a challenge in a society where they stand out. I will be thinking about it, and will share my experiments and findings.

  15. RuthAnn

    Thanks for the historical information and the trip down memory lane! I have one of my grandmother’s cloche hats and one of my mother’s 1940’s “pill box” hats. But your post makes me wish I had my mother’s whole collection. It would be a time capsule from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. She loved hats but restricted herself (for budgetary reasons) to buying just one hat a year, a summer hat one year and a winter hat the next, and so on. The last one I remember her buying was made of light blue net, shaped like a helmet, that fit perfectly over her bouffant hair style!

  16. Annnieloveslinen

    Look how much dress has changed in the past 100 years, that group photo of men signing up where every man wore a cap outdoors, is striking. I too like the blue cloche but confess I’ve never worn a hat as an adult. I had a mauve ‘jockey cap’ when I was a teenager, (it was massive) with a mauve trouser suit. A hideous Easter outfit, all my friends had similar rig-outs at that time too.

  17. helen

    The blue cloche is my favourite. I love all the photographs but the one that strikes me most is the girl on the far right of the first row from the turn of the century. It’s just an everyday stylish outfit.
    I wore more hats when I was younger, when my hair was longer and tied back, I always liked to be a ‘bit different’. I do have a shaped beret which I found on e-bay years ago but have never worn.
    My father who is 85 has always worn a tweed style flat cap.

  18. fabrickated

    Helen – the same girl really appealed to me too. She has such a confident stride. And her skirt is relatively short and practical. Maybe she was a student. Apart from the hat I think her outfit looks very contemporary, and wearable. It is so nice that you wore a hat because you wanted to be a bit different.

  19. Kim Hood

    I love the cream spiral hat from the V&A – I would love to try it on! I love hats but rarely wear them. It would be wonderful for them to become regularly worn again.

  20. SJ Kurtz

    I would love to attempt the white spiral. I am very fond of the little fabric hats from the 20s and 30s; I have a pile of hat patterns, and try to make myself make them and wear them more often.

    Some days I am more successful than others, but if I don’t start wearing them, I can’t see who will.

  21. Jenny

    Wonderfully evocative pictures. But I loved the first picture, not only the hat but it shows that it isn’t today’s young people who evented walking with eyes downwards on a phone (or a book in this case)!

  22. Stephanie

    Very interesting piece, K. I have on occasion worn more stylish hats and I always wear a toque in winter. The ears test someone mentions above must be passed else the ears freeze! My other favourite is the cloche, which is the hat style that suits me best. That said I yearn for wide-brimmed hats and in my 20s had a wool one from South America. I don’t really know how to describe it. I have wanted a cool, masculine one from Borsalino in Italy for a long time, although the ears issue is usually what prevents me from buying. G was looking at buying me one but wasn’t sure about transport.

    Thanks for sharing the photos. I was particularly strucK by the first group and love the one of the munitions workers in their work clothes.

  23. Barbarags

    It is amazing to see photos of yesteryear and realise that both sexes are wearing hats in summer and winter as a matter of course. I particularly like the spiral hat and would love to wear it. I wear hats at times, mostly so that I can be indentified in a crowd when meeting people so that gives you an idea of how unusual hat wearing is now at everyday venues.

    • fabrickated

      Such an interesting point Barbarags – my boss is 6’4″ and wears a hat so I have no difficulty in spotting him when I have to meet up with him at a tube or railway station. I like the spiral hat best too! Maybe there is a personality type for each different type of hat.

  24. Bunny

    I’ve just come from vacation on Mount Desert Island in Maine, an outpost of a national park, loaded with beauty. I can honestly say about 70% of the women I saw had on a hat, self included. These rand the gamut from straw fedoras like mine to cordura headcoverings with ear flaps and neck covers. But they wore hats! It was necessary. The sun was violently shining and who wants skin cancer. There were those who wore hats a bit more stylish and flattering and those who were clearly into only function. I found the female Asian visitors to this national park quite adventurous in their hat choices, which I loved seeing. Old women, young women, hats were on all.

    Perhaps we wear hats today more by necessity than mandate. I’m the first to go out out and look for a great hat for an upcoming wedding but my more frequent use of a hat is day to day, keeping the sun from it’s cancerous journey to my face. My brother had had two bouts of melanoma and my Dad also had a form of skin cancer as well. I can at least make my “mandatory” hat wearing a bit stylish and enjoy it.

    • fabrickated

      Absolutely Bunny. Weather hats, sports hats, safety hats are all required items. I wear them too. But I regret the passing of the outfit hat, the stylish hat, the statement hat. And after all these years of being told to cover up in the sun (and my brother died of Melanoma) we now have a national crisis of Vitamin D deficiency. You can’t win.

Leave a Reply