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 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.
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.
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.