As a vintage buyer, who searches for hidden treasures into forgotten wardrobes or local flea-markets, I’m always fascinated by hats.
I simply adore buying them for my shop, where the hats are nicely displayed and ready to be worn by customers.
What fascinates me a lot is the exquisite design of those hats, the delicacy of the flowers and feathers and tulles, the perfection of the composition and the sophisticated shapes. My favorite decade is of course the 1950′s, when hats were considered the quintessence of femininity and the creativity of designers exploded after a tough period of depression, coinciding with World War II.
The hat has always been the smartest and ingenious accessory of 50s fashion, the ultimate refuge for creativity, against a world of restriction and penury.
During the 1940s hats suffered from the lack of proportions, due to the poorness of materials. During the France Occupation designers were desperate, trying to create something feminine and graceful, without the right tools and accessories. The result was far from their initial intentions.
In 1947, with the revolution of the New Look, the concept of the hat, as an indispensable accessory, was completely renewed. Hats conquered finally a pleasant balance, lightness and cheerfulness, with no more compromises.
Hats were re-dimensioned, they were flattened, their design turned into soft lines, matching perfectly the “corolle” dresses of the New Look. Bags and shoes evolved in a more discreet design. Only hats should stand out from the silhouette.
They were the protagonist of the outfit, considering the balance and the proportion of the figure.
In 1954 experts and fashion press suggested to wear a large hat with a tight dress and a “petit bonnet” with a full skirt.
The accessories asserted themselves as graceful details, characterizing the timeless Parisian elegance. It was very common to see young Parisian ladies with small, asymmetrical hats, tilted on the front of the head or revealing the hairline.
The veil was another detail, synonymous of elegance and sophistication, of numerous models of hats, which were also decorated with feathers and flowers. All those hats with all those different volumes carried with them an ancient charm, which fascinated the romantic imaginary of women and revived the fervid creativity of designers.
“The accessory makes the difference!”
It completed the elegance, it had to match the outfit, it should be discreet and convenient, it should be suitable for the right time of the day and for the age of woman. The fashion rules were settled. The handbook of “savoir-faire” suggested that elegant people should always wear hats, especially when going out.
A real revolution from the previous decade (when women were encouraged to abandon those kinds of frivolous accessories) finally happened.
“How is it possible that inexcusable women persist to avoid the use of hats? This is a mistake we’ve seen too many time, it’s incompatible with elegance”.
Jacqueline de Pesquier wrote in the “Guide à l’élégance”, where she described meticulously the right outfit for every occasion of the day for elegant women. The outfit for the morning, for an invitation to lunch, for the afternoon tea, for dinner, for theater, for the galas and ceremonies.
The trend of the decade had only one rule: coordinated look.
Gloves, pumps, bags and on top of all hats should make the woman’s suit more feminine and affected. The women’s suit used to come in blue marine, black or grey, thus the accessories had to be colorful. Hats used to come in lilac, rose, pale yellow or in a vivid cinnamon shade. The silhouette of the 1950s played in contrast too, opposing black with white, or playing with the color palettes of brown, beige and chestnut.
The balance of this understated elegance was also found in the association of different materials such as leather, feathers, flowers, fabrics and metals.
The designers of the decade (Dior, Givenchy, Schiaparelli…) took inspiration from fashion history. In fact all the hats of the 1950′s were full of historicism.
The designs of the immediate Post War were inspired by the France Occupation, the Middle Age and the Renaissance.
In 1948 Vogue published an article about hats inspired by “les belles dames” of the court of the 18th century. Hats should remind the legendary headdresses of the Versailles’ court, made with reproductions of small caravels and curls that defied gravity. Designers replaced caravels with a slender silhouette, in order to obtain an elegant design.
The Directory, with the bicorne hat and the women painted by Manet, with their tiny hats worn above the forehead, revealing the nape and an elaborate bun, were another source of inspiration.
The flora’s decorations were recovered from the Romanticism and the Second French Empire of the Empress Eugénie.
For example Christian Dior’s hats were an ode to nature, they were composed by abounding vegetal motifs, as well as his shoes and his bags. In his memoires he used to claimed that the hat was the” icing on the cake”, the achievement of silhouette’s perfection.
Hats were imposed as an indispensable accessory throughout the decade, as the emblem of Parisian refined taste. The press insisted about the importance of this accessory, noting the necessity of wearing it.
The decline of its use came soon along with the rising of the new generation’s ideals and the refusal of an old and bourgeois status-symbol. The hat was seen as the enemy of freedom and was soon abandoned and forgotten.
My Final Thoughts
Hats were the victim of the progress and of the new trends. Their rarity and their caducity are the characteristic that made them so fascinating and so collectible. Every hat includes not only high artisanal skills, but also a decadent taste, that made it both a piece of art and a design object. Every hat tells us a story of a forgotten elegance, impossible to be reproduced. I don’t like nostalgic feelings, in fact I like to observe those creations as a result of human’s inexhaustible creativity, as a never-ending research of perfection.