Can I wear a hat?

My research on the history of the decline of the everyday hat shows how hat wearing in the UK began to subside from about 1950.  The beehive and structural hair-dos of the 1960s made it all but impossible to wear a hat too. But perhaps it was the other way around. The elaborate hairstyles replaced the hat. The inventor of this style, Margaret Vinci Heldt, died last month. She said: “I remembered a little hat I owned, a sort of a fez, which was really popular with Jackie O, and I really loved it. I’d always thought, ‘Someday I’m going to invent a hair style that’s going to fit right under that little hat.’”

Margaret Vinci Heldt (AP Photo/Caryn Rousseau)
Margaret Vinci Heldt (AP Photo/Caryn Rousseau)

But being of a hat-norm generation Heldt didn’t entirely see that once you had your hair backcombed and lacquered and set and sprayed the last thing you would want to do was cram it under a little hat. Audrey Hepburn shows how you just treated your now enormous hair hair as if were a hat – putting the trimming directly on the beehive.

This sort of hair, despite its elaborate nature, was nevertheless rebellious and sexy. From now on the hair was more important than the hat. If hats were worn – and there are lots of super examples from the sixties and seventies – they were an adjunct. Youth was again a craze (like in the 1920s) but now coupled with rebellion. It wasn’t done to flaunt your class even if you were very wealthy, so a hat as a signifier of class background was much less important. In fact those that carried on wearing them for traditional reasons (eg bowler hats in the City of London) were seen as passe and fusty.

But while we all agree that hats are not required any more, even for church events, funerals and weddings, they are still widely worn in the UK and across the world. Have a look round one day and do a quick count. I reckon that in an average street that one in 40 or 50 (2-5% maybe?) are wearing a hat.  These are some of the hats I have seen in the past couple of days, on the streets or in the media:

  • weather hats – to keep off the sun, rain or cold
  • “traditional” hats worn, usually by religious groups – turbans on Sikhs, head wraps on Muslim Nigerians, small white hats on Bangladeshi men, Hassidic Jews with kippahs and big black brimmed hats
  • safety and related sports hats
  • event hats – women going to the races in a big group, mothers of the bride
  • royal hats, crowns and tiaras
  • joke hats – football supporters etc wearing team colours
  • beanie hats and hoods on coats and jackets to hide behind and look anonymous
  • old people who are still wearing hats because they haven’t changed their style in years
  • extroverts like Lady Gaga and Isabella Blow who love designer hats

My experience

When Sam wrote “I’m curious as to when you wear your hats. I love hats myself, but never know when or how to wear them… I always feel faintly ridiculous if I’m wearing one anywhere other than to a wedding” it rang a chord for me. I admit I felt a lot like Sam myself. A hat makes you stand out a little bit. As a senior woman I am OK with that. But I don’t want to look silly. So it needs some thought. My daughter, in response to my recent hat making experiments, gave me one piece of advice.

“OK Mum, if you are going to make and wear hats you have to do it in an understated way”.

I think she is entirely right, and we need to take her advice to avoid ridicule.

However people in the street never laugh at hat wearers. We take it for granted that lots of people cover their hair or wear a hat. You just have to ensure that your hat looks stylish and suitable rather than shockingly different. The hat must work with the outfit and achieve the same tone and feel. It can’t shout out unless that is your intention. Ideally it should be a refrain, a support, an integral part – like your shoes, bag or jacket.

I feel pretty good in a hat. I do get looks, but most are benign or positive.

We worry about being overdressed. So many bloggers and dressmakers worry about making smart or beautiful clothes because they lack “occasions” to wear them.

Rules for hat wearing in modern Britain

I always worry about making up rules – but maybe if we call them suggestions or guidelines then you might be OK with that. Also feel free to challenge me – this is a social website and we encourage dialogue.

  • Esme’s rule: Generally, for everyday wear, do understated
  • Probably stick to neutrals (or neutral with a colourful band or trim) and simple classic shapes for everyday wear
  • Brimless hats are generally understated – beret, beanie, turban, hood
  • As a way to ease yourself into hats try wearing scarves. 
  • Weather hats can be stylish and should, in the UK, form the core of your hat collection
  • Take your face shape and colouring into account
  • If there is an event where hats are going to be worn this is an opportunity. But don’t overdo it unless you  have a very confident personality and a dramatic wardrobe in general. Consider alternatives to the “event” hat, eg fresh flowers on a comb or crown, a tied scarf hat, a simple hat with great trimmings, something from a young designer. I have found it hard to match an outfit to a hat. It is much easier the other way around, especially if you make your own clothes.
  • Avoid high street hats eg Debenhams, Marks and Spencer, and anything marketed for Mothers of the Bride. Not only are you in danger of wearing the same as someone else they are just naff.
  • Vintage hats are generally great, with a patina and history. The slightly crushed flowers, the faded silk, the fact that they were probably well worn. You can spruce them up with steam or retrim them, eg introducing some of the fabric or trim from your outfit.
  • Never wear the elastic under your chin
  • if you are very confident and generally a stylish dresser a hat always looks great. Have confidence in your own ability to dress and style yourself and go out with pride.

I think Kate Moss looks good in hats and generally does understated. What do you think? Could you wear any of these looks?





13 Responses

  1. AB

    I often wear hats through the Autumn and winter, partly for warmth and partly to ‘finish’ my outdoor outfit. A fedora or baker boy in wool can look smart with a nice coat, and then my beanies and knitted hats are relaxed for weekends. Some of my hats have matching or toning scarves and/or gloves.

    I find a waterproof brimmed hat a practical,solution to not needing an extra pair of hands for those raining days in town when I already have a handbag and a laptop bag or suitcase to cope with.

  2. Christine

    I love and wear hats, particularly in winter. Probably because I really suit a hat. BUT, yes a big one, it fairly does for your hair. So when I take my hat off, my face does not suit at all the flattened, refusing to fluff up again result. Funny I was talking to a friend about this yesterday and she felt that on hat wearing days you just kept it on all the time. Which, of course, women did in the past.

  3. pia

    I’d love to wear hats more often, but my major problem is keeping them on. Maybe because of my flat head they fly off with the wind. I had a felt cowboy hat flew off my head & into the canal once!

    The other problem is wide brimmed hats making it hard to sit comfortably.

  4. eimear

    I will sometimes wear ‘weather’ hats, but I think my head is slightly bigger so store bought rarely fit (I also find the same with cheap sunglasses, they always feel too tight)………. am looking at some vintage hat patterns and thinking of trying some now that my hair is in a bob shape again….. re the kate moss photos, love all those hats – except for the last biker one………….. its a bit faux costume-y for my tastes – whereas the dr zhivago one works beautifully………..

  5. Marie-Noëlle

    I find it hard for me to wear hats. I think my hair style and glasses don’t help. The only hats I like to see me with are large brims hats but as you say they make too much of a statement for everyday. I would love to wear beanies but I really feel awful with them all glasses and nose lol so hats are a NO for me unfortunately. On the other hand I am definitely a scarf woman.

  6. Wai

    Thank you for an interesting article.

    Growing up I would shy away from wearing hats, but in recent years I have found myself wearing weather hats.

    At first I felt conscious wearing hats with my glasses, “would I look strange?” and would only wear hats when I had my contact lenses in. These days, glasses, or not, I can’t leave home without a hat –

    – a wide brimmed straw sun hat gives me welcome shade from the glaring sun,

    – a wax bucket hat keeps my head dry, and prevents yet another brolly from getting broken by wind and rain,

    – and a beanie keeps my head and ears warm when it’s bitterly cold.

    I even wear one of those ski headbands, albeit only for the annual charity night walking marathons – it helps to keep the chill away in the early hours of the morning!

  7. Lynn Mally

    I wish I could find those stylish weather hats! I wear sun hats all the time, but rather than looking stylish, I think I look like the old lady trying to save whats left of her skin.

  8. Maggie

    I saw an ad yesterday selling a fedora. I thought oh that would be fun! But then I remembered I am over 6 ft tall and often mistaken for a man, so no fedoras for me. I love hats and always enjoy seeing them on others, but somehow can’t figure them out for myself.

  9. Joanne

    I absolutely adore hats – have tons. The ones which get worn most are beanies, tams and bobble (Pom-Pom) hats. I am a particular fan of Brora designs and the cashmere is delightful. I have also knitted a few of my own and am incredibly lucky to have a super-talented sister-in-law who also knits for me. I wear woolly hats for walking in the summer as it can get windy on hills/summits. I agree – Kate Moss does suit hats. If you want to be a flamingo, you need to get your hat on!

  10. Stephanie

    I wear toques in winter and simple baseball hats to block sun in summer. I would love a nice wide-brimmed hat such as Kate Moss is wearing in a few photos though as others have said they can be awkward to wear. In the past I have compromised by wearing a nice cloche hat instead, usually in a dark blue wool.

    I think hats tend to only stand out in an awkward way when the hat is colourful or has lots of flowers, and usually the person wearing such a hat is already wearing an outfit that would stand out in a crowd. That is not a bad thing, but does require confidence or unconcern with other people’s reactions.

  11. Hila

    I was scarred as young girl in high school when the largest size hat available in the school supplies shop was too small – which was fine except for the fact one of the most popular (mean) girl was also in the shop at the same time and went on to tell everyone in school that I was indeed the ‘head’ of house because I had the biggest head. I avoided hats for the rest of my high school life. As a result I have retained a belief that I cant do hats properly. And yet I still look on in envy when I see a large brimmed hat or a fedora paired with a boho look. I also quite like berets.

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