Following a request from my lovely blogging friend, Lara, I have been investigating the headgear worn in Victorian times.
You can read her blog here. https://laratracehentz.wordpress.com/
She was interested in the use of Beaver pelts in hat making, and their popularity in men’s hats. Only male headgear features in this post.
To save me typing out all the information, this short article is from Wikipedia.
As you can see, the popularity of hats made from Beaver fur goes back to the 14th century, perhaps even much earlier.
‘A beaver hat is a hat made from felted beaver fur. They were fashionable across much of Europe during the period 1550–1850 because the soft yet resilient material could be easily combed to make a variety of hat shapes (including the familiar top hat). Smaller hats made of beaver were sometimes called beaverkins, as in Thomas Carlyle’s description of his wife as a child.
Used winter coats worn by Native Americans were actually a prized commodity for hat making because their wear helped prepare the skins; separating out the coarser hairs from the pelts.
To make felt, the underhairs were shaved from the beaver pelt and mixed with a vibrating hatter’s bow. The matted fabric was pummeled and boiled repeatedly, resulting in a shrunken and thickened felt. Filled over a hat-form block, the felt was pressed and steamed into shape. The hat maker then brushed the outside surface to a sheen.
Evidence of felted beaver hats in western Europe can be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century: “A Merchant was there with a forked beard / In motley, and high on his horse he sat, / Upon his head a Flandrish [Flemish] beaver hat.” Demand for beaver fur led to the near-extinction of the Eurasian beaver and the American beaver in succession. It seems likely that only a sudden change in style saved the beaver.
Beaver hats were made in various styles as a matter of civil status:
the Wellington (1820–40)
the Paris beau (1815)
the D’Orsay (1820)
the Regent (1825)
the clerical (18th century).
In addition, beaver hats were made in various styles as a matter of military status:
the continental cocked hat (1776)
Navy cocked hat (19th century)
the Army shako (1837).
The popularity of the beaver hat declined in the early/mid-19th century as silk hats became more fashionable across Europe.’
By the end of the 1800s, Beaver pelts were in short supply. European beavers had been almost wiped out, and the steady trade from North America had eliminated almost all of the beavers in America and Canada too. This had a significant impact on the economy of Native American tribes in those countries, who had been trading pelts with French and English dealers for centuries.
Despite the style of the top hat enduring well into the 20th century, other styles of headgear were also popular in Victorian times. As you can see from this contemporary illustration, two of these men are wearing ‘Bowler’ hats, and the third has on a straw ‘Boater’.
The ‘Deerstalker’ hat originated from hunting deer. The front peak shielded the hunter’s eyes, and the matching back peak stopped rainwater going down his neck. The ear-flaps could be tied down to cover the ears and cheeks, in cold weather.
This style was popularised by Conan-Doyle, in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Hat wearing continued well into the 1960s, with the Trilby hat most widely seen. Most men of my generation never wore hats of any kind, regarding them to be old-fashioned.
These days, more and more people of all ages and gender are wearing baseball caps, an import from the USA.