Everything you need to know about vintage hats

26th May 2022
Rae Ritchie

In the late 1940s, a series of advertisements by the Hatters’ Development Council addressed to young men declared “If you want to get ahead… get a hat!” Whether or not wearing one really did impress the ladies, as the ads implied, is debatable but the industry body was concerned that the younger generation were not wearing hats as much as in the past.


In the long term, the Hatters’ Development Council was correct, but hats continued to be a staple element of men’s and women’s wardrobes throughout the 1940s, ‘50s and well into the ‘60s.

“I think it was the milliner Stephen Jones who suggested that a hat serves a similar purpose to an exclamation mark, punctuating the vocabulary of an outfit,” says Professor Alison L. Goodrum, fashion historian and founder of Goodrum & Merryweather millinery.

“This is heightened in the case of vintage dressing because, following traditional principles, it would not be correct to leave the house, or to be seen in public, without a hat, Goodrum adds.


Hat etiquette

There was strict etiquette governing hat wearing. “A true gentleman would raise his hat in greeting and acknowledgement, and also remove a hat when entering buildings, especially churches or sacred spaces,” explains Goodrum. “Women, on the other hand, would cover up, wearing hats with chaste veiling to maintain appearances.” 

No need to worry too much about such customs if you’re visiting Revival, though. “Hat etiquette, along with many rules of society in the past are now outdated,” says Nicky Cowper of Gamble & Gunn, a hat retailer that exhibits at Revival.

“I think it’s still polite for a man to take off his hat indoors, but no one is going to scorn you if you don’t play by the rules anymore,” says Cowper.


How to style your hat for Revival

The past still does, however, offer useful lessons in how to style vintage hats. “Have a look at original fashion photographs and fashion illustrations of the period – they are wonderfully inspiring,” advises Anna Chocola, who creates vintage-inspired headwear for women at her eponymous studio in Brighton.

Chocola also recommends experimenting: “Take some time to try out hairstyles and attach the hat at different angles. Try the hat with your vintage clothes and shoes on to get a feel of the outfit as a whole.”

Confidence helps, too. “Wear it like you own it,” says Sophia Kathanlina, who founded Peak & Brim Designer Hats in 1990, “Head high and proud, everyone will make a comment and love it.” 


Women’s vintage hats: what to look for

For women dressing in 1940s vintage, Goodrum suggests practical wartime handknits such as snoods and caps, land girl knotted headscarves, military-inspired shapes with a patriotic feel or a small “percher” or “tilt” style to accommodate rationing restrictions and to sit securely atop rolled hairstyles and up-dos.

If you’re going for a ‘50s style, opt for a “half” hat (also known as a “capulet”) that sits close to cropped hair and hugs the head (kidney and teardrop shapes are a good look), a small yet highly embellished cocktail hat straight from the silver screen or a wide cartwheel-shaped hat in the “New Look” style.

For an authentic 1960s hat, go with a peaked news- or baker-boy cap with geometric patterns, an elaborately draped and pleated turban (often with heavy floral decoration), helmet-type shapes that referenced the space race are also very authentic for the ‘60s, a sou’wester/cloche hybrids in technical fabrics channeling Mary Quant and mod culture, or keep it simple with a small pillbox style hat.


Men’s vintage hats: what to look for

Malou Mella, designer at period men’s outfitter and Revival exhibitor Some Like It Holy, points out that hat shapes for men varied according to social class as well as period. “A splendid Homburg hat would have been worn by a man with some authority,” she says (think Winston Churchill).

“Trilbies were used by most classes and were greatly favoured by early movie stars worldwide, so were very much in fashion from the 1930s right through to the 1950s.

“A shorter brim (trilby) became fashionable in the 1960s, heavily influenced by the stylish Italian Modernas, the English Mods and American youth culture.

“Caps were generally worn by the working classes and were very practical. The peak would shield a man’s eyes when working and the hat would usually have been made from a traditional wool weave so would also be warm,” Mella explains.


Vintage hats versus reproduction

Finally, keep in mind that, while searching for vintage can be a thrill, practical issues may decide if you end up with an original piece of headwear or a reproduction.

With Gamble & Gunn stocking both vintage and its own range of reproductions, Cowper is well positioned to offer advice on the difference. “When buying a vintage item, you must consider that it has had a life and will be a little more fragile. We have some beautiful condition hats from the early 1900s that are almost new out of the box but generally there will be knocks and bumps, which to our eyes are part of the beauty of a vintage hat,” she states.

“On the flip side there is nothing quite like a fresh out-of-the-box brand new crisp hat. It’s down to personal choice and the ability to find a hat that is the right fit, which is obviously easier if you have the choice of the full-size range available when you buy a new hat rather than individual one-off vintage pieces.”

“Wearing an original is exciting,” observes Kathalina of Peak & Brim, “But if you can’t afford or find one then a reproduction (as long as it’s good on) is great as either way you are creating a wonderful past, and that’s why shows like Goodwood Revival come into their own.”

Read our guide to vintage accessories here.

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