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History of Felt hats & Straw hats - Felt dress hats

History of Felt hats and Straw hats - Dress hatsA hatless man was an anomaly in the mid nineteenth century, the dress hat was almost always in place, even when the coat and necktie had been laid aside because of the heat. In the 1880s, the average American bought a hat every year or two and, in the first decade of this century, probably owned two hats.

From 1850-1900, the tall top hat continued to be the popular dress hat for both formal day and evening wear; the opera hat (gibus), covered in corded silk, also remained popular for visiting the theatre, as it could be folded flat and put under the seat. A light grey top hat was worn in the late 1860s for coaching or racing parties, and is still worn for Ascot Week in England. The bowler or Derby named after its designer, the hatter William Bowler; was a popular felt dress hat worn beginning about 1860. The derby hat was a hard felt hat with a domed crown, and a narrow brim rolled up at the sides, and varied in height over the years. At first, when worn with the lounge jacket, it was black, but as its popularity increased it was also made in brown or fawn felt, and teamed with the Norfolk jacket. A similar felt hat with a hard square crown was worn in the 1890s and much favored by Winston Churchill, who continued to wear it into the 20th century.

In the U.S. as in France, there were both regional and class differences in the types of hats men selected. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, top hats were required in cities and were sometimes worn by workers with their work clothes. During this period, the "wide-awake", a black felt hat with a broad stiff brim, was very popular in the western states. By the 1870s, top hats made of silk were worn in cities by prosperous businessmen but were not worn in the countryside, where the soft felt hat was popular with railroad workers and farmers. Bowlers or derbies were worn by businessmen, particularly when they visited the countryside, and by some workmen in the cities, although caps were more typical of the laborer.

Beginning in the 1870s, an increasing number of dress hats were considered suitable for informal wear. The Homburg, made fashionable by the Prince of Wales, was a stiff felt hat with a dent in the crown running from back to front, and its brim bound with ribbon and curving up at the sides. The trilby, worn in the 1890s, had a similar dent in the crown but was softer with a wider, unbound brim. The wide-awake, a broad brimmed felt hat with a low crown, was a countryman's hat; but there are photographs of Alfred Tennyson looking extremely impressive in one in the 1850s. Caps of tweed or firmly woven wool with small peaks and a close fit were also worn; the deer-stalker had a peak fore and aft, and ear-flaps worn tied together on the top of the crown.

The use of hats to blur class boundaries appears to have occurred most frequently in England, and to a lesser extent in the United States, particularly outside the workplace, and least in France. However, this type of use generally occurred during the early stages in the history of a particular style of hat. Two photographs of workers at work and leisure illustrate the use of the bowler to blur status boundaries. One photograph of workers at leisure in 1890, shows most of the workers wearing bowlers, but a photograph of workers in 1892 shows most of them wearing peaked caps or felt caps. Only two workers, and the owner of the business, wore bowlers. A more common practice in all three countries, was the use of a particular style of hat to indicate social class status as well as affiliation with a specific region, either city or countryside.

By the early 1900s, the middle class was wearing silk top hats in the cities mainly for formal occasions, such as weddings and church services. Broad brimmed felt hats remained popular among ranchers and farmers. Bowlers were being widely worn by both the middle and the working class, although peaked caps were generally worn in the workplace by workers.

Following World War I, the top hat was reserved only for very formal occasions, replaced by the bowler as daily power dress. The trilby or snap brim hat became the all purpose dress felt hat, cutting across class strata in America and Europe. Narrowing the trilby's brim made it a less formal hat than its nineteenth century predecessor.

Men's dress hats did not change much during the World War II years. Snap brims remained in style. The biggest change in men's hats was in color. Gray, brown, and black felt hats were replaced with rainbow hues, and somber black hat bands were replaced with bands of riotous color and pattern.

Up to 1960, men wore dress hats as a matter of course. Dress hat sales started to tank after John F. Kennedy appeared hatless at his inauguration in 1961, and took further hits in the dress down decades to follow. After bottoming out in the 1960s, felt hats with snap brims made a comeback in the early 1980s, when actor Harrison Ford, playing Indiana Jones, wore one in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; and later, hats became popular with hip-hop artists.

There have always been a hard core of dress hat wearers, who never went away. Certain well dressed and confident men have refused to take off their lids.

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History of Straw hats and Felt hats furnishes enlightening detail, beginning with interesting accounts of dress hats in the early years, through the roaring 20's gangster fedoras, includes features on golf and movie celebrities' hats, and highlights some original and contemporary hatmakers.