Last week I took time off from the creative work of Studio 8 and learned the art of hat-making.

At Bath College’s ‘Summer Millinery’ course, I constructed a hat from scratch. It turned into quite the challenge, with many more layers than I had ever imagined. It was a hat that grew in the making.

A little taller than planned, it was deemed a ‘Cossack-style’ hat by my fellow milliners. Unlike its original fur-covered progenitor, designed to warm the cockles of a Steppe horse-warrior, my creation was more aesthetic.

Constructed as a hard hat with a buckram base, it sits proudly atop my head. Covered in black velvet and, in an attempt to balance my creation, accessorised with a wired fabric bow and an oversize button. If a Grenadier Guard ever went nightclubbing and wanted something to match his bearskin busby, this is what his date would wear.

It transpires that my hat is not alone. A quick skim across the history of hats reveals a long-standing tradition of form over function, style over sense:

Bonnets of every shape and size have come to symbolise the Regency period, and none more so than the ‘poke’ bonnet. Beginning as simple sun-shades, these style became a Europe-wide phenomenon that grew to epic proportions.

Constructed from velvet, lace or straw, the extended crown allowed room for fashionable high hairstyles to be ‘poked’ inside. The exaggerated brim gave maximum protection from the sun, an important feature in a time when a lady was judged by the paleness complexion and regularity of swooning.

From 1800, its popularity quickly spread across the continent. The brim of the ‘poke bonnet’ became even larger, growing to such an extent that it became impossible to see the wearer’s face unless directly facing them. While this suited the demure modesty required of Regency ladies, the hats were derisively referred to as ‘coal scuttle’ or ‘sugar scoop’ bonnets. One French cartoonist lampooned fashionable ladies as because of their reclusive headgear.

A change in fashion towards smaller hats – and presumably a desire to recover peripheral vision – led to the demise of the poke bonnet by the mid-C19th. Straw bonnets and sunbonnets, which were more practical and could be adapted to suit changing styles, continued well into the next century, leaving the ostentatious poke bonnet as the defining hat of its era.

Famous wearers
Elinor Dashwood, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Bennet, Mary Bennet, Kitty Bennet, Lydia Bennet … well, you get the idea.



2 thoughts on “Hats: When form overtakes function

    • I did try wearing it: it adds a lot of height! It needs the right hairstyle and accessories – and a bit of bravery. I might trying wearing it with a black-and-white corsage dress at a friend’s wedding this autumn. x

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