A Brief History & A Look at the Hat in the 21st Century

Hats are forever linked to history. We identify various periods in history by a lot of things: The technology, the science, the architecture, but probably most of all, we identify them by the fashions of the times. The hats and clothes that people wore. Or in more recent times, didn’t wear. For a period between the 1970s-1990s, mens’ hats went out of fashion. Nobody was wearing them. Hats were old-fashioned, dated, boring. They didn’t fit the clothes that people were wearing. But then,  in the early 21st century, hat-wearing for men (and women) is coming back into fashion. This article will look at the history of men’s hats and the hat’s place in modern society. Here we go…
The Hat: Yesterday and Today
Ever since ancient times, men have worn hats. To keep the sun off, to keep warm, to look fashionable or to add a few inches of height to their stumpy frames. In the early 21st century, hats for men are making a significant return to mainstream fashion, nudged along by recent movies and TV shows such as “Boardwalk Empire”, “Public Enemies”, “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “Downton Abbey” and“Underbelly: Razor”. But what are the histories of all these popular hats that we see in movies, TV shows and photographs? In period dramas? That we read about in books? Where did they come from? How long have they been around? Where do they get their names from? Let’s find out…
The Tricorne Hat
When? 1700s
Who? Patriots, sea-captains, any male cast-member of a colonial-era costume-drama.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) wearing a tricorne hat
The tricorne is the famous, triangle-shaped hat with a round crown at the top. It’s the hat that Mel Gibson wears in “The Patriot”. It’s the hat worn by almost every male actor who’s ever participated in a 1700s historical reenactment of the American Revolution, or the French Revolutionary Wars. Where did it come from?
The tricorne is a stiff hat made of felt (usually beaver or rabbit felt). It evolved from the round, wide-brimmed hats of the late 1600s, similar to the ones shown below:
In the early 1700s, it became fashionable to fold up the circular brims of these hats and attach them to the crown with needle and thread. This stopped the wide, floppy brims from blocking the wearer’s line of sight, but the folded brims also became rain-gutters that stopped rainwater from simply sloshing off the old wide brims and down the back of your neck. The rain instead ran out the corners of the hat and down the back of your shoulders, away from your body.
The tricorne was invented by the Spanish in the late 1600s/early 1700s. It quickly became popular in France and other parts of Europe, as well as in England and in the American colonies. The hat remained popular right up to the end of the 1790s. It was then replaced by the bicorne hat, popularly associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Top Hat
When? Early 1800s
Who? Abraham Lincoln, Uncle Moneybags (the ‘Monopoly’ man), the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine, anyone from Dickensian England.

A typical top hat
The top hat is very rarely worn today, except on the most formal of formal occasions, but there was a time not too long ago, when it was worn by everybody on every day of the week.
The top hat was born in the 1790s and became the replacement headwear for men after the tricorne hat of the 18th century started going out of fashion. The top hat is a stiff hat made of felt (usually beaver felt, but rabbit felt is also used). The top hat was worn by everyone during the Victorian era, from the poorest of paupers all the way up to the richest of royals. Abraham Lincoln is famous for wearing a top hat style popularly called the ‘stovepipe’, because of its excessively high crown. Considering that Lincoln towered over the average mid-century American at an impressive six foot, four inches, he probably didn’t need anything else to make him stick out in the crowd.
The top hat was worn for all kinds of occasions, from going to the theatre and to the opera, to weddings, important public events, formal social events or just for daily wear. Top hats worn for weddings are usually light grey in colour, while top hats worn for evening events are jet black. In the 1840s and 50s, the top hat started being made out of the more familiar silk that it’s known for today, and manufacture of beaver-felt top hats started to decline. Because of the top hat’s height and size, the collapsable top hat was invented in 1812 by Antoine Gibus. Its collapsable quality made it popular because such hats were easier to store in cloakrooms of hotels, theatres and restaurants.
Up until the early 1860s, officers of the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard’s famous ‘bobbies’) used to wear strengthened top hats for head-protection as part of their uniform. In 1863, the present ‘custodion helmet’ replaced them.
The Bowler Hat
When? Mid-1800s
Who? Accountants, bankers, Charlie Chaplin, Oddjob, the Plug Uglies.

A classic black bowler hat
The Bowler hat, characterised by it’s dome-like crown, was invented in 1849 by a pair of hatmakers: brothers Thomas and William…Bowler. They were commissioned by the famous London hat retailer “Lock & Co” to invent a close-fitting, low-crowned hat that would be sturdy and which couldn’t be easily knocked or blown off the wearer’s head. The Bowler brothers later found out that their customer was Edward Coke, brother to the Second Earl of Leicester.
When the prototype ‘Bowler’ hat was invented, Mr. Coke came to check it out. He showed up in London on the 17th of December, 1849 and headed to Lock & Co’s shop to examine his new hat. Remembering that he had asked for a particularly durable creation, Mr. Coke threw the hat on the ground and jumped on it twice to check its strength. When the hat remained in shape, Coke proclaimed his satisfaction at this new invention and paid twelve shillings for the hat.
The Bowler hat remained popular throughout the 1800s and through the first half of the 1900s, being worn by everyone from politicians, actors and the everyman on the street.
But who, you might ask, are the ‘Plug Uglies’?
The Plug Uglies were an American street-gang of the mid-1800s. They were famous for almost all of them wearing their distinctive bowler hats. Because of the bowler’s strength, the hats were worn by the Uglies as helmets to prevent head-injuries in the middle of gang-fights.
The Fedora & Trilby Hats
When? Late 1800s
Who? Humphrey Bogart, Adam Savage, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Prohibition-era gangsters, Indiana Jones, almost every man in the 20s and 30s.

Humphrey Bogart sporting a classic, wide-brimmed Fedora

Frank Sinatra wearing the Fedora’s little brother, a Trilby. You can immediately tell the difference between them: The trilby has a much shorter brim (and although you can’t see it in that photo, it would have a tight, upwards curl at the back)
The Fedora, and its little brother, the Trilby, are two of the most famous and timeless of all men’s hats. Both invented in the early 1890s, the Fedora and the Trilby remained largely popular into the 1960s. Since then, their popularity dropped significantly, but in the 2000s, they have returned to style thanks to recent 1930s-era gangster-films and TV shows that have been flashing across the television-screens of the world.
The Fedora was invented in 1891, and the Trilby in 1894. The Fedora features a wide brim, a hat-band or ribbon and a pinched and indented crown. The Trilby is similarly shaped, but typically has a shorter brim (and a tighter upturning at the back). Both hats are traditionally made of rabbit or beaver felt and come in both firm and soft varieties.
The Fedora and Trilby hats became popular because of their relatively compact size (compared with something like a top hat) and their lower profiles. They could be worn comfortably in cars and on public transport without the hat’s brim obscuring the driver’s line of sight. Hollywood movies of the 20s, 30s and 40s made the Fedora incredibly popular and it used to be that almost every man owned at least one.
Here’s an interesting fact you might not know: The fedora, when it started out in the 1890s, was actually a women’s hat! This trend lasted through the 1900s up to the late 1910s; all the males in the world sticking to bowlers, flat caps and top hats instead. However, fashion changed in the 20s (as did many other things) and today, the fedora, and its little brother, the Trilby, have become more than ever, associated with male wearers.
The Boater Hat
When? Late 1800s
Who? Punters, oarsmen, sailors, barbershop quartets, vaudeville entertainers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers…

The Dapper Dans, Disneyland’s resident 1900s-style barbershop quartet, with their matching waistcoats, trousers, sleeve-garters and of course…their boater hats
The Boater hat, characterised by its flat crown, straight sides, flat brim and circular or oval profile, is the classic summertime hat. It gets the name ‘Boater’ (also called a ‘Skimmer’ hat) because it was traditionally worn by Venetian gondoliers. It was from Italy that the hat spread rapidly around the world. It remained popular from the 1880s all the way through to the 1930s and 40s, slowly dying off after the Second World War.
Before becoming the piece of classic summertime headgear which we know today,
the boater was the traditional hat of Venetian gondoliers, designed to protect them from the strong Italian sun
The classic boater hat is made of straw. This makes it lightweight, comfortable and breathable in hot summer weather, when thicker felt hats, more suitable for winter, would make the wearer sweat and perspire very freely. The boater remains popular today in countries with strong summers where other styles of hats would be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Why is this hat also called a ‘skimmer’? Well, traditionally, the ‘boater’ had a more generous brim-width. The ‘Skimmer’ is a variant of the Boater with a narrower brim.
Panama Hat
When? Early 1800s
Who? Harry Truman, Edward VII, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Theodore Roosevelt

A traditional Panama hat, complete with its wide brim, perfect for protection from the tropic sun
Along with the Boater, the Panama hat is another classic mens’ summer hat. The Panama hat comes in a variety of crown-shapes, but it is distinguished by the material used to make it: The leaves of the Toquilla Palm. The fronds of this particular type of tree (although it is not scientifically considered a proper palmtree) are soft, strong and flexible, ideal for making light, durable, breathable summer hats.
The Panama was invented in the early 1800s, probably in the 1830s. Despite what the name suggests, the hats were not invented (or even made) in Panama. They were actually invented in Ecquador. They get the name ‘Panama’ because that was the country to which most of these new hats were exported. The tropical climate of Panama made just such a hat ideal to cope with the soggy, humid conditions in just such a country. As the hat’s fame spread around the world, it became a popular summertime hat and general travel-hat. It’s light construction and breathable material made it ideal for summer use and its soft, crushable material (which would retain its shape with some gentle prodding after being unrolled) made it perfect for travelling, when a man could just roll up the hat, tie a ribbon around it and put it in his suitcase.
The Panama remains popular today (along with the Fedora and the Trilby) as a summer hat.
The Homburg Hat
When? Late 1800s
Who? Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Edward VII, Hercule Poirot

Winston Churchill wearing his signature Homburg hat

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (portrayed by David Suchet) with his three-piece suit, pocketwatch, swan-headed cane and of course…his Homburg
The Homburg is a very distinct hat. It has a tightly curled brim on both sides and a dent or crease in the top of the crown, running lengthwise from front to back. The Homburg is named after Bad Homburg (‘Homburg Baths’), a town in the state of Hesse in Germany, where it was created. It was introduced to the world at large by the youthfully fashionable but increasingly overweight Prince Albert Edward, later Edward VII of the United Kingdom, son of Queen Victoria. The Homburg was a popular hat in the late Victorian period and remained popular through the first half of the 20th century. It was commonly associated with politicians; Winston Churchill was a notable wearer of this style of hat. Homburgs are typically made of rabbit felt.
The Flat Cap
When? 1500s
Who? Working-class men, newsboys, golfers, Dr. Harry Cooper.

Brad Pitt wearing a flat cap
The classic flat cap (also called a newsboy cap, eight-panel cap, driving-cap…the list goes on) is a light, floppy cap or hat, traditionally made of lightly spun wool. Variations of the flat-cap date back centuries, when wool was the backbone of the English economy. It arrived in its present form (and variations thereof) in the early 1800s. Because flat-caps were cheap, comfortable and long-lasting, they were frequently worn by poorer, working-class people looking for an affordable and effective head-covering to keep their heads warm during outdoor work in cold weather.
The flat cap comes in two varieties: The traditional flat-topped cap and a variation called the Eight-Panel Cap (alternatively, also the six-panel cap). The eight-panel or six-panel cap is characterised by six (or eight, hence the name) triangular panels sewn together to make a rough circle on the top of the hat, held together in the center by a cloth knob or button. This variety of cap is sometimes called the ‘newsboy’ cap, because it was commonly worn by newsboys (children hired by newspaper companies) who sold newspapers on street-corners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As the 20th century progressed, the flat cap became popular with a wealthier set. Because other hat-styles of the day were too bulky and cumbersome to wear with a pair of goggles, early motorists would wear a flat cap with their driving outfits when they went out for a spin. The flat cap’s low profile meant that it wouldn’t fly off in the slipstream generated by early, open-top cars, and it would keep dust and grit from getting into the driver’s hair. In Australia, the flat cap is commonly associated with noted veterinary surgeon, Dr. Harry Cooper.
The Pith Helmet
When? 1870s
Who? Big game hunters, soldiers, prospectors, Van Pelt from ‘Jumanji’.

A classic pith-helmet
The Pith Helmet is the classic hunter’s headgear. Together with a khaki outfit, boots, socks, a belt, a cylindrical canteen of water and a fully-loaded shotgun, it conjures up images of tracking and hunting big game in the wilds of Africa or the jungles of subtropic America. Or possibly, it makes you think of the British soldiers in the film “Zulu“.
The pith helmet was invented in the mid-1800s, but it gained its current, iconic shape in the 1870s. It’s made, not out of straw or felt, but rather out of a material called ‘pith’.
Pith is the soft, spongy tissue found inside the branches and trunks of trees. It’s typically white (or light brown) in colour. The pith used to make the classic pith-helmet comes from the Sola Pith, a flowering plant native to tropical countries such as India and Malaysia.
The Slouch Hat
When? 1600s
Who? Military personnel, the ANZACs
The slouch hat, instantly recognisable from its pinched crown and wide, floppy brim, is a holdover from the years of Stuart England. The slouch hat was invented in England in the 1600s and it rose and fell in popularity for the next 200-odd years. It came back to fashion in the 1800s when it was adopted for use by the British Army and starting in the 1880s, the military forces of what would eventually become the Commonwealth of Australia. The slouch hat is a soft felt hat and its wide brim made it especially handy in hot weather when it kept the sun off the wearer’s face and body.
However, because of the hat’s wide brim, it soon became apparent that this hat was perhaps not the best choice for soldiers. The floppy, soft felt of the hat’s brim would get in the way of a soldier’s rifle when he raised it against his shoulder in presentation, or when he raised his arm and braced the rifle against his shoulder, ready to fire. To fix this problem, it became the fashion to pin up one side of the hat’s brim to make way for the rifle and to stop it from getting in the way. The hat remains closely associated with the Australian Army to this day, along with the pinned-up brim.
Hats in the 21st Century
Since the mid-2000s, mens’ hats have been returning to fashion with increasing speed, spurred on by popular new movies and TV shows that have their settings in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. The Trilby and its big brother, the Fedora, have become extremely popular and they’re now available in a wide range of colours, sizes and materials, ranging from the cheapest, mass-produced cheap straw and paper-woven $20 flea-market variety, to the heirloom-quality, felt hats of the early 20th century. Today, hats are being worn to keep the head warm and the face cool, hats are being worn to complete a vintage-inspired ‘look’, or to accessorise a more modern, casual kit. Is the hat here to stay? Maybe. Will its use continue to rise or remain steady? Or is it just a fad? Who knows? Everything old is new again. Fashion comes in waves, but style stays forever. As people become more health-conscious about the dangers of overexposure to the sun, and the comforts that a good hat can give them either in summer or winter, hats will continue to rise in popularity due to their sheer practicality, if for nothing else.
Buying a Hat Today
Okay. You’ve read all that stuff and now you’re bored. Or maybe you’re interested. Interested enough, perhaps, to buy your very first hat. You’re tired of those baseball caps that you collected when you were a kid and you want to get a proper guy’s hat. Maybe you’ve always wanted one. Maybe you think they’re stylish. Maybe you bought a new suit and you want a hat to go with it. Perhaps you just finished a “Boardwalk Empire” marathon? What do you look for in a nice hat?
Hats can be made of anything. Plastic, wool, straw, sedge, paper…But a proper hat, a hat that you can wear out to dinner, or out on a cold wintery day to keep your head warm, is traditionally made of felt. Two different kinds of felt, to be precise.
Depending on where you live and which animal is more readily available, hats can be made of either rabbit or beaver-fur felt. In Europe, the tradition leans towards beaver felt first and rabbit felt second. In Australia, by comparison, hats are made of rabbit-felt (the rabbit being a plentiful and pestilential creature that roams the Australian outback in frustrating abundance). Rabbit felt is generally smoother and a bit firmer, while beaver felt tends to be a little ‘fluffier’ and softer. Benefits of animal felt in hatmaking include water-resistence (hats made of beaver and/or rabbit felt will not shrink if they get wet, as opposed to cheaper hats made of wool-felt), strength (they won’t rip or tear easily) and shape (they won’t deform as easily as other materials).
The majority of classic mens’ hats are made of felt. The Homburg, Trilby, Fedora, Top Hat and Bowler are all felt hats. Felt hats are usually winter hats. They’ll keep your head warm if it’s windy, rainy or snowy outside, and they’re nice and fuzzy and soft. However, felt hats are not very good for summertime use. There’s very little ventilation in such hats, so any heat trapped inside (which would be beneficial in winter) would become extremely uncomfortable in summer.
Summer hats are traditionally made of straw in a variety of weaves, that will make them either firm or loose and floppy. The Boater hat traditionally has a tight weave and is very firm and hard. The Panama Hat, by comparison (also made of a variety of straw), is lighter and floppier and a bit more breathable. Panamas are so cloth-like in their construction, that some varieties of this hat can even be rolled up for storage; something that would destroy a boater.
Not all hats come with linings. Some top-quality hats are deliberately sold without linings because the hat material would make linings unnecessary or ineffective (such as soft, floppy felt hats, where the lining would get crushed and crinkled anyway). Linings on hats are typically made of silk. On some hats (generally the newer hats), the silk lining is further protected by an additional plastic lining, which would prevent sweat-stains from damaging the silk. Plastic interior liners also have the advantage of being easier to wipe clean.
Eeeww yuck!
Oh come on. Everyone sweats. And those who wear hats are no exception. One way to tell a good-quality hat from a cheaper one is to check the sweatband. Cheaper hats may just have cotton sweatbands or no sweatbands at all. Hats of good quality (whether they be felt or straw) traditionally have sweatbands made of high-quality leather. Leather is soft, comfortable, strong and long-lasting. Leather sweatbands are traditionally machine-sewn into the linings of their hats, but in more modern times, sewing might be reinforced (or completely replaced) by super-strength industrial glue.
Awww. Ribbons…Cute!
Hat-bands or hat-ribbons have adorned hats for centuries. No, they’re not an indicator of quality, but they can be an indicator of style. Hats that are traditionally sold with ribbons will typically have them stitched loosely around the crown of the hat. If you feel daring enough, it is possible to remove the ribbon that came with your hat and tie and sew on a new ribbon that’s more to your taste. Hat ribbons are useful features apart from just being aesthetic. Hat-ribbons can be useful places to stick things such as cards (put on a nice suit, grab an old-fashioned magnesium flashbulb camera and stick a ‘PRESS’ card into your hat and you could look like a journalist interviewing one of the survivors of the Hindenburg Crash), matchsticks, feathers or, as was the style from time to time, decorative hat-pins.
How Does It Fit?
A good-fitting hat should sit firmly (but not temple-crushing tightly) around your head, with the brim resting on your ears. It shouldn’t fall off easily when you bend over and it should stay on in a fresh gust of wind.If you’re fighting to put your hat on every morning and it’s giving you migraines once you’ve won the battle…the hat’s too tight. Similarly, if your hat feels loose and shifty on your head and won’t stay in place: Then it’s too big.
Hats are sold in a variety of sizes and sizing-styles, from the standard “S/M/L/XL/XS” to fractioned and whole sizes (7 1/2, 9, 6 1/2 etc) and in centimeter measurements (my hat size, for example, is Size 7, or roughly 57cm, which is about a Medium).
Where to Buy a Hat?
You’re really asking two questions here in my opinion.
1. What hats are there out in the market today?
2. Where can I buy this specific hat that I want?
In the 21st century, with the steady resurgence of classic mens’ headgear, it’s becoming increasingly easy to purchase cheap cotton, wool-felt or even paper-weave hats online ranging in sizes from XS to XL. Or you can go to one of those ‘trendy’ ‘fashion’ clothing stores for the younger set, where hats like those are selling like hotcakes (I know, I used to work in just such a place), and if you’re looking to buy a cheap Trilby or Fedora just to try it on as an experiment and see whether or not you like the whole idea of wearing a hat and if you’re comfortable doing this, I’d recommend one of those shops and one of those more flashy, flowery, ‘out-there’ hats as a way to dip your toes in the water and see whether you like what’s further down in this pool of headwear.
For those of you looking to purchase a proper hat (I apologise if this term seems somewhat derogatory, but it’s true), by which I mean, a hat which looks good, which is made the traditional way, which will last for decades and which you can wear with a variety of outfits, then you can go to the websites of a number of prominent hatmakers and browse their catalogs, select the hat (and most importantly, the SIZE) that fits you, and then make the purchase.
Of course, buying online has one inherent flaw: You can’t try on the hat before you buy it. And unless you’re absolutely damn sure that you know what your hat-size is, I strongly advise caution and research before buying a hat this way.
Okay, great. Now I’ve scared you off of buying a hat online. Where can you buy them ‘in-the-flesh’, so to speak?
If you’re looking for a cheap and/or secondhand hat, trawl places like flea-markets, antiques shops, thrift-shops and those fashiony clothing & accessory shops that I mentioned earlier. There, any hats that you find that you like enough to buy, you can try on before you fork out the cash.
“Yeah but those hats are ugly, old, manky, ripped, loose, tight, stained, frayed, girly…” yadda, yadda, yadda. Yes I know. You want to buy a brand-new hat, but you want to do it properly. You don’t want to risk $100+ on a top-quality hat online which you can’t try on and which might not fit you when you finally get it in your hands, thereby wasting all your money. Now what?
Okay, a simple solution presents itself:
Find a hat-shop. Duh!
Now I realise that the recent history of the hat means that hat-shops are not as plentiful as once they were, which is a great pity, but sometimes, you strike it lucky.
Myself, I live in Melbourne, Australia (if there’s any other Melbournians reading this; take note…) and here in Melbourne, there really is only one place for the discerning hat-wearer to go to. If you want a nice, quality, long-lasting, oldschool felt, straw, Panama, Fedora, Trilby, topper, flat cap, boater etc etc etc etc ad nauseum, there’s really only one shop worth visiting…and I mean that quite literally because it’s the only shop in town. It’s “City Hatters” (for the Melbournians reading this, it’s on the corner of Flinders & Swanston, underneath the Station). I’m fortunate to have this city institution on my doorstep. It’s been operating out of the same shopfront for the past (as of the date of this posting), 101 years.

City Hatters in Melbourne is a traditional mens’ hat-shop and has operated continuously out of the same corner shopfront under Flinders St. Station in Melbourne since it opened in 1910

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