A hat with pithy nuance

Critical tweets and hashtags quickly filled social media this past Friday when Melania Trump wore a pith helmet for a Safari tour in Kenya. The New York Times quoted Kim Yi Donne, a political-science professor who specializes in African politics at the University of California, “When people think of Africa, they have these standard narratives. Her attire is a signal of her understanding of what Africa is in 2018. It’s tired and its old and it’s inaccurate.”

Many feel the pith helmet is a symbol of European colonialism, but it wasn’t created as a means of expressing authority or repression, only as a way for Europeans to survive equatorial heat and tropical humidity. If the pith helmet is a symbol of hot climate imperialism, then a similar argument could be made for parkas and pack boots in former cold climate colonies.

The pith used in the helmet’s construction was acquired from the spongey core of the stem of the shola plant that grows abundantly in marshy areas of East India (West Bengal). The light-weight pith, which absorbs moisture and can be easily carved, was traditionally used for creating Bengali wedding headgear.

Sometime during the 1820s to 1840s, sun helmets (known as shola topee in Hindi) began to be made by Indians for Europeans who found their straw hats became sticky and limp in the high humidity and heat of the tropical Indian climate. Pith sun hats retained their shape while the hygroscopic qualities of the pith wicked sweat away from the head.

1858 design for pith helmet

In the 1850s the British army were still wearing shakos – a tall Napoleonic era hat style that survives today as part of the marching band uniform. To replace the shako, the pith helmet was adapted for military use. The helmet, which was covered in cotton, had a high crown to  prevent sweat buildup, and added ventilation holes on the side and top for air circulation. The helmets could be soaked in water so that on a hot day, the head was cooled as the water evaporated. A wide, sloping brim to keep sun and rain off the wearer’s face and neck also provided a place to fasten a leather or metal chin strap when not in use.

Soldiers in the Middle East quickly learned they were targets in their bright white helmets, so they dyed the cotton coverings with tea and dirtied them with ‘khak’ the Persian word for dirt from which we get the word khaki.

By the late 1860s, the military were making their helmets from cork or metal instead of pith. The Northwest Mounted Police in Canada even adopted the style in the 1870s (pictured right). A British style was standardized and became known as the Wolseley helmet in 1899, named after, but not designed by, Sir Garnet Wolseley. This modified version, had an apex at the front and back and is still worn by many regiments including the Queen’s Life Guards.

By the late 19thcentury, the genderless civilian style of pith helmet had a rounder shape and flatter top and was known as a ‘Bombay bowler’. Made in India for export, the hats were mostly worn by colonials, expats, missionaries and travellers around the equatorial world: Caribbean islands, The Amazon, Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

U.S. postal service helmet

The pith helmet style became a prototype for soldier’s ‘tin hats’ during World War I, workmen’s hard hats, and polo helmets, which in turn influenced the design of today’s bicycle helmets. The U.S. post office even adopted pith helmet styles for mail carriers that are part of the current uniform.

Dressed for Safari, c. 1930

Pith helmets fell from general use for two reasons. Firstly, as colonies gained independence after World War II, indigenous denizens wore their own traditional styles of headwear that predated the use of pith helmets: turbans, thobes, fezzes, kufis… Although, many of the newly independent countries retained pith helmets for their military and police uniforms. Secondly, travel changed in the postwar world. Extended holidays that began with long ocean voyages to exotic tropical locales were displaced by jetting off for short trips to air conditioned resorts.

The pith helmet is still being made and worn. One current manufacturer in Pakistan has been making them since 1928. This is a style that was not appropriated from any indigenous culture. It was gender non-specific, and was the result of scientific design to aid air movement, moisture wicking, and sun protection. It was not produced by slave labour, and it was never restricted to or from anyone who wanted to wear one. The style’s association with colonialism is superficial – based on it being originally made for and worn by primarily white people who did not have suitable headwear from their own wardrobes to wear in hot and humid climates.

The Perfect Dent

Anyone with a mild case of OCD can drive themselves mad perfecting symmetrical dents and folds (without creases or kinks) in soft felt fedoras. I thought maybe I just didn’t have the right touch, but if you look at 1940s photos, and even film stills, most fedoras were imperfectly dented:

Myth Information – The Merry Widow Hat

Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow, 1907

Exaggerations of truth plague the history of fashion, none more than the Merry Widow Hat. The story is that Lily Elsie, the English stage actress (and Kardashian of her day), donned a large hat to play the lead in the hit play The Merry Widow in June 1907. Elsie’s hat, by English designer Lucile, reportedly inspired fashionable ladies in London and New York to wear similar sized hats of up to an unbelievable 36 inches or more in diameter.

The silhouette, 1905

The fact is that there were already large hats fashionable in the years before the debut of the Merry Widow, but of a slightly different shape. Before 1907 hats were worn atop upswept hair, canted over the face. However, balancing this cantilevered topper was a blouse pouched at the front of the waist, and a skirt trained at the hem. The overall silhouette was overtly curvaceous. To add to this, skirts were often ruffled, flounced, or pleated below the knee to add volume to the bottom, creating a balanced silhouette.

The silhouette, 1907

1907 saw the debut of a slightly altered silhouette. The skirt became plainer and a bit slimmer; the bodice lost its pouching over the waist. Coats and jackets often took on shapeless, kimono cuts, de-emphasizing the overall silhouette. The higher, more heavily emphasized bust line created a cameo effect when balanced by an even larger hairstyle and voluminous hat sitting further back on the head. In reality, it is the volume of hats, and hair, worn in combination with a slimmer silhouette that makes the ‘Merry Widow’ hat appear larger than previous hat styles. The beautiful Lily Elsie was the ultimate model for this look, which lasted until 1911 when hats began to reduce in size.

Comic postcard, 1908

Most large hats from this period are never wider than the shoulder’s breadth, the largest I have ever measured was 22 inches in diameter. But the myth for hats of up to 36 inches in width or more dates back to the era itself from newspaper and magazine reports of what was being worn in ‘other’ cities. The Los Angeles Herald reported on March 22, 1908 (see below) that the sidewalks on Broadway need to be widened to accommodate the new fashion for Merry Widow hats that measure 36 – 40 inches wide. Dipped in sarcasm, the report goes on to say the widest hats available in Los Angeles are only 21 inches in diameter at most. Aside from comic postcards, those elusively wide hats never seem to get photographed. Despite this, the massive Merry Widow became a fashion myth as real as the 18 inch waist.

The First Fashion of 2017

Last year’s trend for making political statements through dress continues to be a strong influence in 2017.

The National Mall in Washington may become a sea of pink tomorrow. For two months, Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, founders of the Pussyhat Project, have called on those attending the Women’s March on Jan. 21 to wear a pink hat to create a strong visual statement at the march. The movement also allows those unable to attend the march to support the event by wearing a pussyhat wherever they are. The name of the hats were inspired by President Trump’s comments in a 2005 tape in which he said: “Grab them (women) by the pussy. You can do anything.”

A view of the march, January 21, 2017

The hats are simple, consisting of a crocheted or knitted rectangle folded in half and stitched up the sides. For those who aren’t crafty, hats can be found from various online sources.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Karyn Ruiz, Lilliput Hats

Karyn Gingras – Lilliput Hats

The Fashion History Museum’s second annual fundraiser Chapeaux et Champagne has been scheduled for February 11 – tickets are available through Eventbrite. We will be once again featuring an array of vintage hats as well as the work of one contemporary Canadian milliner — this year it is Karen Ruiz (nee Gingras), the creative energy and founder behind Lillput Hats.

Originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Karyn’s interest in historic fashion led to a personal collection of vintage hats but her profession as a milliner happened more by chance. When a night school class in tap dancing she was signing up for became full, Karyn switched to a millinery course instead. Soon Karyn was steaming and stretching straws and felts into hats for her friends. In 1988 she founded Lilliput Hats – the name was chosen to suggest a cottage industry of handmade whimsical and quaint hat sculptures.

Hat made in April 2011 in honour of Kate Middleton’s wedding

In 1990, Holt Renfrew began carrying her hats and, as her fame as a Toronto milliner grew, Karyn was kept busy making customized hats from her College Street shop.  Her client list has included Whoopi Goldberg, Celine Dion, and former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson. Most recently, the hats worn by Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie were custom made by Karyn for the band’s farewell tour during the summer of 2016.

Myth Information – Toque Blanche

As part of our occupational dress collection, the museum recently acquired a chef’s uniform worn in 1959/1960. In reading up about how the costume developed I found a lot of apocryphal stories about why the chef’s hat, known as the Toque Blanche, looks the way it does.

Bakers, 16th century

The stories range from how the earliest chefs from the Middle Ages were monks, and wore a black monk’s hat that looked similar. Another story is that the original caps were donned at the court of Henry VIII because one chef lost a hair in the king’s soup and as a result was beheaded, so the next chef wanted to be more careful. Fact is, early images show everyone wearing some form of practical head covering to keep hair and sweat out of food. The vast majority of kitchen workers have historically been women, so the white bonnet was the typical choice for them.

Chef with Cat, by Theodule Ribot, c. 1870

A commonly repeated story is that the chef’s hat first appeared in the court kitchens of Louis XVI and that the original design had 100 pleats — each pleat representing a way to cook eggs. While there are well over a hundred egg dishes (when you include egg based sauces and desserts), there is no evidence beyond hearsay of a connection between egg recipes and pleats. I have been unable to find evidence of any chef’s hat with anything near 100 pleats and the oldest hats appear to have gathered, not pleated, crowns. A more likely story is that Marie Antoine Careme, as the chef du cuisine to Talleyrand in the first decade of the 19th century, developed the chef’s uniform. He is credited with selecting the colour white to represent cleanliness and reportedly had his staff wear hats of various heights to represent their authority within the kitchen. The tallest, the chef’s hat, was called a casque a meche and was stiffened with card, however, I couldn’t find any evidence of tall chef hats existing before the 1920s.

The Chef, 1921, by William Orpen

Upon the fall of Napoleon’s France, Marie Antoine Careme went to England and brought his chef uniform and hat with him when he became the chef du cuisine for the Prince Regent.

With the professionalization and masculinization of the cuisine industry in the mid 19th century, French chefs like Escoffier wore toque blanches, as seen in the paintings of Ribot and Monet. The style is a tam, consisting of a band that fits snugly to the head to prevent sweat and hairs from getting into the food, and a puffed crown, resembling a soufflé (perhaps the origin of the egg connection) that allows a bit of air conditioning and a place to tuck up the hair.

This style of ‘traditional’ hat with the elongated crown has been around less than a century.

It’s really only in the last 100 years that chef hats have taken on more dramatic shapes with stiffened pleats and tall crowns. This seems to be tied to the rise of restaurant culture and the French cooking-school trained celebrity chef. In recent years, with the demise in popularity of French cooking in favour of Asian cuisines, the chef’s hat is on the decline, displaced by simple caps or bandannas. Click here for more information.

A History of Chef Hats: Tall Tales or Facts

Canadian Fashion Connection – Stetson

eb356b79fdd59c9ca9afcba64a3b9d46As an integral element of the lone cowboy – the Stetson hat is a symbol of America – but a large part of its history played out in Canada.

In 1902 the Union Hat Works of St. John’s, Quebec agreed to relocate their factory to Brockville, Ontario in a deal that exchanged a free parcel of land and ten tax-free years for a fully equipped factory that guaranteed to employ 100 local workers for four years.

il_fullxfull.834192018_3krnThe Union Hat Works operated until 1913 when it was purchased by the Wolthausen Hat Corporation of South Norwalk, Connecticut. The J.B. Stetson Company acquired a controlling interest in the Wolthausen Hat Corp. in 1930 and took over the Brockville factory in 1935 so they could avoid high Canadian tariffs by manufacturing their hats for the Canadian market in Canada. It was the first time Stetson had opened an operation outside of the U.S., but plants in Mexico and Australia soon followed.

Stetson also made women's hats, starting in 1932

Stetson also made women’s hats, starting in 1932

The Brockville Stetson plant made a variety of hats, particularly fine dress hats under their Sovereign and Royal Stetson lines, as well as youthfully-styled hats for their Playboy line. Stetson also produced all the hats for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Brockville plant.

Between 1955 and 1970, the men’s hat business shrunk by 50% and Stetson closed their Brockville plant on May 21st, 1970. The plant president at the time, Alex Higginson, explained “It is no mystery why we are closing the plant, just take a walk down the street and you’ll see the answer- most people just aren’t wearing hats any more”. Although production in Canada ceased, Stetson retained a Canadian office until 1985.

A must see film – Falbalas 1945

Rooster feather trimmed sleeves and turban hat, from Falbalas, spring 1945

Rooster feather trimmed sleeves and turban hat, from Falbalas, spring 1945

This film should be required viewing for students of 1940s fashion! The title Falbalas, which means frippery (ostentatious decoration), is translated into ‘Paris Frills’ on IMDB. The film was released in France in June 1945, shortly after European hostilities had ceased but before WWII had ended in the Pacific. The film must have gone into production shortly after Paris was liberated in June 1944 and completed with the final outdoor scenes filmed on a warm late winter or early spring day in 1945.

The clothes and hats are, in a word, fabulous. There are bustled Victorian ball gowns that would have contravened wartime fabric restrictions in all other countries in 1945, novelty trims, like rooster feather covered sleeves, and endless silly hats resembling mad medieval headdresses and Dr. Suess-like top hats. The entire film looks like the Theatre de la Mode has come to life.

The wedding dress in the finale, spring 1945

The wedding dress in the finale, spring 1945

The clothes for this film were designed by Marcel Rochas and the hats by Gabrielle. Neither designer are well-remembered today, although Rochas had a brief resurgence of fame under the fashion direction of Olivier Theyskens in the early 2000s. However, during the occupation and in the postwar, pre-Dior 1940s, Rochas and Gabrielle were leading fashion houses  heavily featured in French fashion magazines, along with other less-well remembered labels like Lelong, Ricci, Saint-Cyr, and Valois.

A fitting of a model, with the head vendeuse in black

A fitting of a model, with the head vendeuse in black

What makes this film so special is that the entire storyline takes place almost entirely in the fictitious fashion house of Phillipe Clarence (loosely modelled after Marcel Rochas). Clarence is a bounder – he has a series of girlfriend/muses until he falls in love with his best friend’s fiancee. This drama unfolds at fashion shows and fittings, in scenes where he has temper tantrums while draping creations onto models, or while ‘baptizing’ dress designs (giving numbered designs names for the fashion show like ‘Aphrodite’ and ‘Antigone’.)

This film is a document of how a fashion house worked in 1945. As a story, its okay, the film opens with six women standing around a man who is lying dead on the ground with a wax mannequin in his arms, and then rewinds to a few weeks earlier to show the journey of how this came about. The strength of this film is not in the plot, it is in the documentary of Paris fashion in 1945. You can watch the film here on rarefilmm.

Bill Cunningham – 1929-2016


Fashion photo-journalist Bill Cunningham, pictured here pointing his camera while wearing his signature French workman’s jacket, tried to be an inconspicuous observer of New York fashion, but he was as well known to New Yorkers as the naked cowboy. He passed away yesterday at the age of 87. I never met the man, and yet I feel like I lost a friend.


Although not in the Facades book, this is one of the many photographs Cunningham took of his friends dressed in period clothing around New York

I first became aware of Cunningham when I found a copy of his book Facades for a couple of dollars in a used book store in the early 1980s. The book of fashion photographs documents historic styles, as modelled by his friend Editta Sherman, in front of period buildings around New York. The photographs were taken between 1968 and 1976, when New York was crumbling into disrepair, and was published in 1978. It was a precious addition to my library that I looked at often, and it even became an inspiration for my exhibition Street Style at the Waterloo Region Museum in 2014.

Marilyn Monroe photographed by Bill Cunningham wearing a Cunningham hat

Marilyn Monroe photographed wearing a Cunningham hat

Cunningham began his fashion career as a milliner in the 1950s, turned to journalism, including W magazine, but left after an argument with publisher John Fairchild over who was the more important designer of the time – Yves St. Laurent or Andre Courreges. In 1967 Cunningham began taking pictures of Hippies, which lead to his photography for the book Facades. In 1979 he began working for the New York Times as a freelance fashion photographer and only after being hit by a truck in 1994 did he agree to become a member of the staff for health insurance benefits (Cunningham treasured his freedom over financial success.)

He lived in a rent controlled artist’s studio at Carnegie Hall most of his adult life. The 2010 film Bill Cunningham’s New York documents his daily work as the city tries to find rent controlled premises to relocate the last tenants of Carnegie Hall, including Cunningham and his long time friend and muse Editta Sherman, who died at the age of 101 in 2013. Despite the upheaval, Cunningham was one of those people for whom the glass was always half full, and in his weekly On-The-Street reports for the New York Times, he always brimmed with enthusiasm for whatever style he captured on film.

Fashion in Song – The Jockey Hat and Feather – 1860


This version seems to have the front brim turned up and decorated with a bow, otherwise, the feather cockade, rounded cloth crown, and forward sitting style exposing the back of the head are typical features.

When I was reading up on yesterday’s Fashion in Song The Gal with the Balmoral, I found the 1861 sheet music that referenced the song was sung to the tune of an 1860 hit The Jockey Hat and Feather.


These caricature versions have flatter brims, including at the back, but otherwise have the visor like front brim, rounded close-fitting crown, and cockade.

Jockey hats were  popular from about 1860 to the late 1880s. The style was based on a jockey’s cap, and consisted of a close-fitting rounded crown of velvet or cloth that exposed the back of the head. The small brim was often trimmed with a cockade of rooster feathers and was usually turned up at the sides and back but left to protrude at the front, like a visor.

It was certainly the style of hat being referenced in the film Gone With the Wind when Scarlett shows up at Rhett’s jail cell wearing the dining room curtains and matching hat with rooster feather cockade.

The style was revived in the mid 1880s. Godey’s Lady’s Book reported in November 1883 that ‘The novelty for young ladies is the jockey cap bonnet of felt or velvet. This has the visor… worn by jockeys, but the crown is higher… ”

The flirty nature of the hat inspired some pious writers to condemn the style as unsuitable because it made the wearer look ‘fast’. (Household Words Magazine, July 26, 1884)

The Jockey Hat and Feather

As I was walking out, one day,
Thinking of the weather,
I saw a pair of roguish eyes
‘Neath a hat and feather ;
She looked at me, I looked at her,
It made my heart pit-pat,
Then, turning round, she said to me,
How do you like my hat ?

CHORUS—Oh! I said, it’s gay and pretty too;
They look well together,
Those glossy curls and Jockey hat,
With a rooster feather.

She wore a handsome broadcloth basque,
Cut in the latest fashion,
And flounces all around her dress
Made her look quite dashing;
Her high-heeled boots, as she walk’d on,
The pavement went pit-pat,
I will ne’er forget the smile I saw,
Beneath the Jockey hat.


She kissed her hand, said au revoir
Then I was a goner;
Before I had time to say ‘Good-bye’,
She was round the corner.
I tried that night, but could not sleep,
So up in bed I sat,
And right before my face I thought,
I saw that Jockey hat.