The way you wear your hat has been explored by artists for centuries

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By Nancy Kranzberg, Special to the Jewish Light

When I think of Edgar Degas, what usually comes to mind are his paintings of young dancers. However, the St. Louis Art Museum’s 2017 exhibition “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” was the first to explore Degas’ fascination with the subject of millinery. A museum booklet described the exhibition as focusing on the intersection between the artist’s avant-garde work and a remarkable golden age in the history of millinery in Paris in the late 19th-and early-20th centuries.

During that time there were around 1,000 millinery shops in the French capital, with milliners creating extravagantly trimmed hats in a wide range of materials including silk, velvet, felt, artificial flowers and bird plumage. The exhibition focused on Degas’ paintings of women making and buying hats, as well as his imaging of the hats themselves.

There are hat museums around the world, such as the one in Portland, Ore., and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which has an incredible collection. Our own Missouri History Museum, according to Senior Curator Shannon Meyer, has more than 700 hats in its collection.

“Hats were a very important part of fashion, particularly for women, because their size and trimmings were a good indicator of social status,” Meyer said, noting that some of her favorite hats in the collection are those with exotic feathers. “During the late 19th-and early-20th centuries, the popularity of feathers and whole birds in millinery contributed to the decline of several species. The development of the Audubon Society helped to put a stop to the killing of birds for the sake of fashion.” 


The history of hats in art and hats in general is never-ending. There’s even a national hat day in January, and of course Forest Park Forever has its annual hat luncheon in June.

Among the famous works of art with hats in them are Jan Van Eyck’s portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini, who is wearing a typical merchant’s summer hat. In Rembrandt’s “An Old Man in Military Costume,” a man wears a 1630 plumed hat, consisting of an ostrich feather standing proud against a velvet cap. Of course there is Rene Magritte’s famous bowler hat in his “Son of Man,” a self-portrait. Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,” from 1889, shows the artist wearing a sapphire blue cap with black fur and a bandaged ear. Frida Kahlo’s works with headpieces adorned with flowers and silk make every list.

In her book “The Art of Wearing Hats,” author Helena Sheffield says the earliest headpiece ever discovered comes from 3,300 B.C. She cites some significant dates, such as 800 A.D., when St Clement, patron Saint of Hatters, accidentally invented felt, leading the way for milliners. She also notes that the term “milliners” comes from the high fashion in Milan.

In their article “Bringing Back the Hat” on the website, the Art of Manliness, Brett and Kate McKay write, “Up until the 1950s, men were rarely seen out and about without a hat sitting upon their head.” They go on to discuss the Fedora, the Homberg, the Bowler and the Derby, and how to wear each hat. The pair writes, “Hats are due for a full resurgence. They are both functional and stylish. They can cover a bad hair day, keep your head warm, and shade your eyes from the sun. They can also be worn to cover a receding hairline, which interestingly enough is why Frank Sinatra, an iconic hat wearer, started wearing one in the first place.”

Anna Zeitlin, a milliner in Nashville, Tenn. who runs her own business, says, “Hats are a great way to express your individual style. There’s been a great resurgence of hats in recent years, thanks partly to the Royal Wedding. Fashion has become more democratized. It’s all about individualism.” 

Pharrell and Lady Gaga have done the most for the hat since Jackie O.

An article on the BLGH Marketplace website discusses the history of African American women and hats, noting, “Elaborately adorned headdresses hold enormous significance in African rituals. American slaves continued the custom of wearing geometric designs, attaching feathers and adding beaded jewelry to straw and fiber hats before attending church. In addition to instilling pride and confidence, the hats remind the wearers to carry themselves like queens.”

Hats are often worn by those representing different religions such as the yarmulke worn by some Jews, veiling in many Christian religions and different head coverings worn by Muslims. The Amish and Mennonites advocate that women should wear head coverings at all times.

I haven’t even mentioned crowns, helmets or sports caps or the many hat-inspired songs such as “In Your Easter Bonnet” from “Easter Parade” and Merle Haggard’s, “My Own Kind of Hat.” And of course hats play a starring role in several notable children’s books, considering Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” series and “Red Riding Hood.”