As we spring towards Easter, you may see an abundance of chocolate eggs lining supermarket shelves or the yellow daffodils blooming. Your ears may hear Judy Garland and Fred Astaire singing, ‘In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, you'll be the grandest lady in the easter parade.’
The Easter bonnet conjures up nostalgic memories of being a school child in the UK crafting a hat adorned with bunnies and flowers. However, the Easter bonnet was not originally child’s play but has its roots in an old English tradition of buying new clothes for Easter to symbolise a spiritual renewal and good luck. Many women marked the end of the lent of buying luxury goods by buying a new elaborately designed bonnet.
Hat wearing humans have been around for millennia. It is believed that the Middle Ages was when hats began to be worn by the majority of people to distinguish their class and status.
A painting from around 1450 depicting women sporting a variety of hat styles. The two women on the far left are wearing wimples. The conical princess-like hats are known as Hennin.Source: https://historyofeuropeanfashion.wordpress.com/category/medieval-1100-1450/
The people who made hats for men were called Hatters. Makers of ladies hats were known as Milliners, the name is said to originate from the Middle English word milener, meaning an inhabitant of the city of Milan or the name given to one who deals in fashion items from Milan. A Milliner’s shop did not only sell handmade hats but an assortment of ribbons, gloves and even straw as well.
A 1782 satirical Mezzotint print depicting the inside of a Milliner’s shop
Over the centuries styles of hats evolved to suit the current fashion trend or to reflect particular events. Historically women were confined to the home, for royal and upper class women they would use fashion to express their personality and wealth, thus becoming arbiters of fashion.
The Edwardian era (1900s) was the golden age of millinery, as skirts became slimmer the brim of hats became wider. The styles were very flamboyant and could be decorated with ostrich feathers, artificial flowers or stuffed birds. The most decadent of Edwardian hat crazes was The Merry Widow, first featured in the 1907 play of the same name starring Lily Elsie. Women watching the play went wild for this new flamboyant hat and would of had a Milliner to create one for themselves. The Merry Widow Hats could reach a diameter of 18 inches or 45cm as well as being lavishly adorned.
Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow, 1907
By 1910 hats were becoming smaller and by the First World War the Merry Widow had disappeared as the elaborately designed hat were seen as frivolous and unpatriotic. Until the Second World War hats remained an essential accessory acting as protection from the elements and to preserve one’s modesty.
Today hats are not as common place as they once were. Many women opt for hats of more of a practical and casual nature. The contemporary preference for hats to be of a simpler style than an excessive decoration poses the question, are bespoke hats still relevant to the high fashion of today?
Animal Mask designed by Stephen Jones, one of the most radical contemporary Milliners, for John Galliano Spring Summer 2017
Christian Dior Spring 2017 Couture
Rose by William Chambers. Chambers is a leading British Milliner who is known for creating handmade hats and headpieces that are avant-garde but wearable.