Fashion has always been a form of expression, from choosing a particular style, to showing support to a political cause. In the past however, fashion had a much deeper and social meaning, which is what this article is about. This is the first entry in a series about the meaning of fashion.
In this article, we examine the social meanings of the Hat, how the meaning of the hat has changed over time and its social importance. It sounds strange to think that a hat can show people your place in society and dictate the level of respect you deserved.
How can a hat mean so much?
In the 19th century, Britannia’s empire was expanding, financial institutions were in place (Bank of England) and personal pride was at an all time high. Victorian Britain was all about showing your wealth and status, but being respectable whilst doing it, which was reflected in people’s fashion styles.
In the early 19th century, there was a very different culture in Britain from today. People were extremely proud of their status, their place in society and how they were perceived, which is why fashion was so important then. Today we use our property as a way to show our success; we make it look nice, look as big as possible and invest into them heavily. If you can think of fashion in the 19th century in the same way as our homes, then you will be able to raionalise their thinking.
The picture to left is what most people of think of when it comes to Victorian fashion, a big hat, big dresses and making their presence known.
For the Victorian woman, hats were already part of their culture, but for most men it wasn’t the norm.
In the early 1800s, hats were worn by those in high positions of society, with both wealth and power, and not for the average-Joe, but this was all to change.
The culprit of this social revolution can be seen below to the right. Introducing the famous Top Hat. As we can see, the Top Hat makes a very striking and bold statement about who you are. With a loud colour, impressive profile and a sleek finish, it shouts confidence and pride, which is why the rich loved it.
The top hat was invented in 1800 by John Hetherington. It received a curious reaction at first, but this was soon replaced with pride. In Victorian Britain, pride wasn’t reserved for those of high status, it was seen as a ‘must have’ for everyone and it was echoed in what happened to this hat. Queen Victoria played a huge role in the value of personal pride in the general public, whatever their status, but the class boundaries were still firmly in place to prevent this.
In the past, only the wealthy would wear a hat and they would wear them everywhere. The arrival of the top hat, would soon remove that barrier of social status and anyone could now wear a hat, and everyone did. Hat fever swept across Victorian Britain, which must have made the wealthy feel very insecure. They could no longer show off their success through their fashion if everyone else could wear their status symbols. What is interesting though, is that every man wanted to be seen as important and he did this by wearing a large, bold hat. Although it may sound amusing today, to be respected and seen as successful in society, is still just as important today as it was then. The only thing that’s changed is the method in which we show our success.
Throughout the 1800s, another hat was introduced, the Bowler hat. The Bowler was invented in 1850 for Gamekeepers to protect their heads whilst hunting, but it quickly trickled down to professional workers in the financial district and other professions. So once again, the hat was being used as a way of showing off wealth and status. Although it has as a similar profile of the top hat, it is shorter and curved on the top, maybe to be less bold and easier on the eyes.
The Bowler hat became mainstream and found it’s way in to popular culture. Either for comedic or fashion reasons but probably the most well known image for the Bowler is when it appeared on screen with Charlie Chaplin in the golden era of Hollywood. It also appeared in the popular film series, Austin Powers. But this time it was used as for humour as part of his costume.
So what can we take from the colourful history of the humble hat? Well, it started out as a way for the rich and powerful to show off their wealth and status, but ironically it helped to brake the social barriers of the class system. Even with the new Bowler hat, it went from being used in high status jobs, to the glitz of Hollywood and being used for comedy. In conclusion, it seems the hat can’t take itself that seriously and likes to be a rebel. It’s designed for the powerful, but ends up in very different social strata, which makes it a powerful piece of fashion in its own right.
Fashion and its Social Agenda
An introduction to Victorian Britain
Charlie Chaplin on the Internet Movie Database
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All images used on this blog are property of their respective owners. I would take my own, but they wouldn’t look this good!