I grew up in the midst of a hat-wearing era. If you watch movies from the 1950s, you’ll see what I mean. In both newsreels and Hollywood films, almost all of the grown-ups–in almost every walk of life–are wearing hats.
Of course, grown-ups occasionally doffed their hats. On a vacation, at a beach, in a theater. But when it really counted, and they wanted to be taken seriously, they wore hats.
Although factory and construction workers wore other kinds of hats at their jobs, white-collar men tended to wear fedoras. Footage of men attending baseball games makes clear that, even at casual events, most men were wearing felt fedoras
Women tended to opt for a variety of stylish hats, many of which look pretty silly today. Just take a look at photos of Eleanor Roosevelt. As the wife and later widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she’s frequently seen in headwear that was not only frilly but also far from flattering. (By contrast, photos of her younger self, sans hat, put her in a far more appealing light.) Images of other women in frilly hats predominate in the photos of the time.
When did things begin to change? Probably about the time that Senator John F. Kennedy became a popular media focus. He was almost never photographed wearing a hat. It wasn’t until his inauguration in January 1961, when he wore a top hat just like Ike’s, that he appeared in a formal grown-up’s hat. (He notably doffed it when he gave his memorable speech.)
The popular TV series “Mad Men,” which appeared on TV from 2007 to 2015, illustrates this change. When the series begins in March 1960, Don Draper wears a stylish fedora whenever he leaves the office. But as the series moves through the ‘60s, he abandons his hat more and more.
The hat-wearing era clearly ended years ago. Today a celebrity or fashion icon may occasionally be photographed in a trendy hat, but hats are no longer de rigueur.
I’ve never adopted the habit of wearing hats, with two major exceptions: I wear warm fuzzy ones to cover my ears on chilly days, and I wear big-brimmed ones to shield my face from the sun.
But two years ago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco put together a brilliant exhibit highlighting the creation and wearing of women’s hats. “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” focused on the creative artists who worked as milliners in Paris during Degas’s era, as well as on the era’s hats themselves.
The Wall Street Journal described the exhibit as “groundbreaking,” an exhibit that revealed “a compelling and until now less widely known side” of the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
The exhibit brought together exquisite Degas paintings and exquisite French-made hats. Paris, as the center of the fashion industry during Degas’s era, was also the center of the millinery world. Around one thousand Parisian milliners created a rich and diverse array of hats. Many of these milliners worked in a network of independent millinery shops that competed with the nearby grand department stores.
Hat-making, the display and sale of hats, and the wearing of hats in belle époque Paris—all of these fascinated the Impressionist painters who focused on urban life in the City of Light. Degas had a particular affinity for millinery, and he would often return to the subject—featuring both the creators, who ranged from prestigious designers to the “errand girls” who delivered hats to their new owners, and the elite consumers of these hats. This exhibit was the first to display all of his millinery paintings in one place.
The exhibit also included display cases filled with French-made hats from the period, noting that they were sculptural art objects in their own right. This headwear came from museums that collect hats as part of their costume collections. Museums like the Chicago History Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco contributed wonderful examples from this fabulous era of women’s decorative headwear.
When I saw this exhibit, I was thrilled by it. It also became a powerful reminder of a childhood memory I’d nearly forgotten. Standing in front of Degas’s paintings of milliners, I suddenly remembered going to a millinery shop in downtown Chicago with my mother when I was about 8 or 10. Although my mother never had the financial assets to become an affluent consumer of fashion, she was acutely aware of fashion trends. Within the bounds of my parents’ limited resources, Mom carved out a way to dress as stylishly as their funds allowed.
On this occasion, Mom must have felt financially secure enough to travel downtown and purchase a new hat styled just for her. I was her lucky companion that day, creating a vivid memory of our shopping trip.
We found the millinery shop somewhere in a building on Randolph Street, a block or two west of the gigantic Marshall Field’s store on State Street. We rode in an elevator to a floor above ground level and alighted to arrive at the cheerful shop, its big windows letting in a great deal of natural light. Mom sat in a chair that faced a mirror while the milliner offered her several different styles to choose from.
Mom chose a white straw hat with blue flowers. It was a delightful style that suited her perfectly. Today I’d describe it as a cross between a cloche and a very small sunhat: a straw cloche with a brim. Not the kind of cloche that fits closely around the face, but one with a small brim that framed Mom’s face and set it off in a charming way. Mom and the milliner conferred, possibly even turned to me to get my opinion, and made a final decision to select that hat, adding the lovely blue flowers in exactly the right place.
Mom clearly felt pretty when she wore that hat. She went on to wear it many times, and whenever she did, I was always happy that I’d been with her on the day she chose it. Even though Mom couldn’t purchase an elegant French-designed hat like those featured at art museums, she had her very own millinery-shop hat designed just for her.
She treasured that hat. So did I.