Site name and logo

Get ahead, get a hat

Because of declining sales, in 1965 the British Hat Council felt it necessary to create an advertising slogan, get ahead, get a hat. Earlier generations would have found the advice otiose, since only the meanest members of society went about without one. Photographs from the early to middle twentieth century immediately strike us because of all the hats, whether it’s a sea of flat caps at a football match, a horde of be-bowlered city clerks crossing London Bridge on their way to work, a group of heavily hatted women enjoying a walk in the park, or any man in an old black-and-white film, whose head is invariably topped off with a Homburg, trilby, fedora, or other style.

The soft hat called a Homburg came from the exclusive German spa town of Bad Homburg near Frankfurt, often frequented by royalty in late Victorian times. The hat became fashionable in London because the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) regularly visited the town from 1882 onwards, liked the style of the local hat and brought it home with him (in 1893, advertisers in American newspapers were calling it “the latest fad”, though they spelt it Homberg). The name was also early on confusingly given to a woman’s hat of rather different style that was also known as the Brighton hat:

The woman who started the fashion of the Brighton or Homburg hat has much to answer for. She has robbed thousands of Englishwomen of their character — so far as character is represented by headgear. Had Dame Nature foreseen the Homburg hat craze she would not doubt have been accommodating enough to construct all women’s faces after the same pattern with the oblong mask, classic features, and shapely head required for the severity of such a style of headgear.

Manchester Times, 5 Jun. 1891.

The male style could be variously black, grey or and brown. In the 1930s the black hat became known as the Anthony Eden, or the Eden hat, after the then British Foreign Secretary, who commonly wore one.

The other two of the three classic styles of men’s headwear of the period were popularised by actresses. The fedora, later to be the classic topping of the Italian-American mobster, was named after the title and main character in a famous play by the French playwright Victorien Sardou, first performed in 1882 with Sarah Bernhardt as the hat-wearing Russian princess Fédora Romanov. The name of the trilby comes from a play adapted by the American Paul Potter from a book by George du Maurier. The latter had been an immense hit when it came out in 1894:

We are beset by a veritable epidemic of Trilby fads. Trilby bonnets and gowns and shoes, Trilby accents of speech and Trilby poses of person. Trilby tableaux, teas and dances. Trilby ice cream and Trilby sermons, Trilby clubs and reading classes and prize examinations, Trilby nomenclature for everybody and everything.

New York Tribune, Mar. 1895. A Trilby ice cream was so called because it was moulded into the shape of the hat.

The play was brought to London in November 1895 by the impresario Beerbohm Tree and was a huge success, ensuring that the hat worn by the bare-footed, chain-smoking, 20-year-old leading lady Dorothea Baird would become part of the British Trilby craze. Her picture, wearing that hat, appeared on postcards, in advertisements, on chocolate boxes, and in newspapers.

Women’s hats of the period also had names with literary links. The Dolly Varden was large, with one side bent down, “abundantly trimmed with flowers” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. The name came from the coquettish character in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, though her hat, as described by Dickens, was less extravagant:

… a little straw hat trimmed with cherry-coloured ribbons, and worn the merely trifle on one side — just enough in short to make it the wickedest and most provoking head-dress that ever malicious milliner devised.

The sale of William Frith’s portrait of Dolly Varden at the auction of Dickens’s effects in June 1870, shortly after the author’s death, stimulated a fashion in the UK and the US for the eighteenth-century costume it portrayed, particularly among younger and middle-class women. Such was Dolly’s popularity that her name was soon applied not only to the hat, but also to a parasol, a racehorse, two American fishes, a mine in Nevada, a cake and a brand of scent. (In Manchester, from 1872, a new system of collection of night soil in carts from privies was called the Dolly Varden method as an ironic reference to the stench.) To judge from these comments, the fashion was not universally popular in America:

The maids of Athens, and the matrons too, do not take to Dolly Vardens worth a cent.

Athens Messenger (Ohio), 16 May 1872.

Was ever any new costume more criticized than the new “Dolly Varden”?

Harper’s Weekly, May 1872.

Another a little later was the Merry Widow, an ornate and wide-brimmed hat whose style and name derived from the hat worn by Lily Elsie in the London premiere of Franz Lehar’s operetta in June 1907. The show made Ms Elsie a star and the focus of a craze, just as happened with Dorothea Baird a decade earlier. Her picture — wearing that hat — appeared very widely in advertisements and picture postcards. This style was as common in the US as in Britain, resulting in this puzzled comment:

There you will see women wearing “Merry Widow” hats who are not widows but spinsters, or married women whose husbands are very much alive, and the hats in many cases are as large as three feet in diameter.

America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat, by Wu Tingfang, 1914.

He was right about their size. Some American examples became so large, in fact, that a picture postcard of the time featured a wearer staring sadly at a sign by a lift:

Ladies with Merry Widow Hats Take Freight Elevator.

Another style, popularized by the Prince of Wales in 1896, was the boater, a straw hat with a flat crown and brim, so named because it became the usual informal wear when messing about in boats, but now remembered by many people mostly as part of the official costume of their local butcher, not least Corporal “They don’t like it up ’em” Jones of the BBC television series Dad’s Army, and as part of the uniform of children in some of our posher schools.

The formal men’s hat of the nineteenth century was the top hat, an updated version of a hat of earlier centuries that had been faced with beaver fur, though by the 1830s silk ones had become standard. Tall and round, with the brim curling up at the sides, it’s familiar still in very formal wear and from costume dramas. In Britain it was colloquially a topper; in the US a plug-hat, because in shape it resembled a fire plug. An older version was called the bell-topper, beltopper, or belltopper because it had a bell-shaped crown.

Gentlepeople, whether in town or country, dress almost exactly as they do in England, except that the beltopper hat is comparatively seldom seen.

New Zealand After Fifty Years, by Edward Wakefield, 1889.

Another slangy British term for the taller varieties of top hat was chimney-pot hat (stove-pipe hat in the US):

His first half-hour is occupied in trying to decide whether to wear his light suit with a cane and drab billycock, or his black tails with a chimney-pot hat and his new umbrella.

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, by Jerome K Jerome, 1886.

The wide-awake was a soft felt hat with a broad brim and a low crown, said to have been jocularly named because it had no nap. It’s mentioned in Scouting for Boys by Robert Baden-Powell of 1908 and also here:

And lastly there was the wagoner himself, a lad, say, of eighteen summers, a fine, strong, healthy-looking young fellow, well clad, and wearing on his head a “raddidoo” or wide-awake hat, with perhaps a peacock’s feather or some other embellishment at the side.

The British Workman Past and Present, by The Reverend M C F Morris, 1928. Raddidoo defeats me completely, as it did the author, who remarked it was “used in the East Riding for the ordinary wide-awake hat commonly worn by the farm lads. The origin of this curious word I have never been able to discover”.

The billycock was a hard, round hat. Etymologically, it has been a matter of contention, with many references saying firmly that it’s from the name of William Coke of Norfolk, who commissioned its manufacture (so billy-coke or billy-cock, though his family name was actually pronounced cook). Not so. The name is from a style of the early eighteenth century called a bully-cock. The original bullies were upper-class sporting gangs of the period, who became a terror on the streets and gave their name to intimidating the vulnerable. (There’s another level of word-historical curiosity here, since bully is from Dutch boele, a lover, and was at first a term of endearment applied to either sex. Later it became a way to address a male friend, hence the name for the group.) A bully-cock was a bully’s hat whose brim was cocked, or turned up. This is a description of an Oxford “smart” of the early eighteenth century:

When he walks the streets he is easily distinguished by a stiff silk gown, which rustles in the wind, as he struts along; a flaxen tie-wig; a broad bully-cock’d hat, or a square cap of about twice the usual size; white stockings; thin Spanish leather shoes; his cloaths lined with tawdry silk, and his shirt ruffled down the bosom as well as at the wrists.

Quoted in Heraldic Anomalies: or Rank Confusion in our Orders of Precedence, by Edward Nares, 1823. A square cap, or square, is the academic headgear later referred to slangily as a mortarboard.

William Coke was responsible for a very similar hat to the billycock, which is part of the reason for the confusion. But his was what we now call the bowler. He had it made by the makers Lock of London in 1850 as a hard hat to protect the heads of his gamekeepers when out riding and chasing poachers. It was made from felt rendered hard with shellac. Mr Coke reputedly tested the prototype by jumping on it, an abuse it survived undented. It ought to be called a Coke hat, which indeed it was for a while, or perhaps a Lock hat. But Messrs Lock had it manufactured by the firm of Thomas and William Bowler and their name has stuck to it, no doubt because a hat with a crown like a bowl ought to be called a bowler. In the US, the usual name was and is derby, after the Epsom Derby (though said differently), partly because of its riding associations, but mainly because the hat had by the latter part of the century become standard wear for the many Londoners for whom Derby Day was a de facto public holiday.

A cocked hat was any kind that had the brim permanently turned up. These had been much in fashion in the eighteenth century, especially the three-cornered hat worn both by civilians and by army and navy officers. In the nineteenth century, only after it had gone out of fashion in favour of the beaver hat, this came to be called a tricorn or tricorne hat. Towards the end of the eighteenth century a type cocked only at front and back became common. By analogy, modern fashion historians call this a bicorne, though likewise the term doesn’t seem to have been used by its wearers. Naval officers kept the bicorne, though around the time of Nelson they turned it ninety degrees to point front and back instead of side to side.

Support this website and keep it available!

There are no adverts on this site. I rely on the kindness of visitors to pay the running costs. Donate via PayPal by selecting your currency from the list and clicking Donate. Specify the amount you wish to give on the PayPal site.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 18 Jun 2011