Women’s hats have served as a functional protection from cold, the heat of the sun, and from industrial grime and wartime injury. They have, and can still, indicate rank and social standing. They can define a profession or trade and for hundreds of years have reflected a woman’s embrace of the newest fashion. The wearing of elegant hats however was, and indeed is, a complex conundrum.
Not only does a hat have to be correct for the specific social occasions: Morning or afternoon wear, cocktail, wedding, funeral, summer and winter warmth, but it has also to be worn correctly. There was a time when public humiliation could be the consequence of wearing a hat at the wrong angle, too far on the back of head, or too far over the forehead. From the late 1700s and up to the 1960s, women wore hats even just to go shopping. Hats in the 19th and 20th century were created by the famous milliners of Paris, NYC, and London, with styles changing every season and with pictures in fashion magazines.
Many portraits celebrated the fashionability and elegance of women in hats, providing a lasting memory to celebrate the ladies and the creativity of the milliners who produced the latest, newest hat styles, using the latest in hat fabrics and trimmings: the finest woven straws from Italy; silks and velvet from India made into turbans; perfectly made silk flowers of every type and size; and costly feathers from peacocks, pheasants and exotic birds. Ostrich plumes were a favorite because of both their high price and their beautiful movement when worn.
The Easter Bonnet represents the tail-end of a tradition of wearing new clothes at Easter, in harmony with the renewal of the year and the promise of spiritual renewal and redemption. The Easter bonnet is fixed in popular culture by Irving Berlin, commenting on the Easter parade in NYC, a festive stroll that made its way down Fifth Avenue from St. Patrick’s Cathedral:
In your Easter bonnet
with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade