Get Ahead, Get A Hat

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.

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.

A Victorian Top Hat made from felted Beaver fur. (1880)

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.

The hat makers turned to silk, for their well-to-do customers.

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 Bowler hat was favoured by the middle classes, and is still worn today by some men.

During hot weather, many men wore straw hats, to be more comfortable.
The tall straw hat was favoured by many.

But the smaller, lightweight ‘Boater’ was perhaps the most popular hat during summertime.

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.

Working class people could rarely afford stylish hats, and tended to wear flat caps made from cheap materials.

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.

51 thoughts on “Get Ahead, Get A Hat

  1. Wearing hats seemed to end with my generation. Boys who graduate from Groton School wear straw boaters at graduation. Very cool. Tradition lives on. Today, collecting hats and also hat boxes is popular.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. All so very sophisticated, Pete. The flat caps seem to be popular here for men who are balding. Of course, baseball caps here have been popular since the 1940’s (some earlier of course) for sports teams. Even some law enforcement agencies and military branches wear them now. Country boys always wore them for as long as I can remember. Of course they are popular with the hip-hop artists and fans. I even have one I wear when we go hiking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was once given one, (baseball cap) with the ‘Pirates’ team emblem on it. (Whoever they are?) I only ever wore it when painting the house or fencing, to stop the paint getting on my head. πŸ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.


    1. Yes, they wore such headgear for shooting deer, primarily in Scotland, or on country estates of wealthy men elsewhere. I always wondered why Conan-Doyle chose it for Sherlock, (being a pan-sexual drug-addict, he was unlikely to go deer-hunting) but Holmes wore many other styles of hat too. πŸ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He was a huge hit in the UK when we took him there in 1989. Everyone wanted their picture taken with him wearing his white Stetson and he was often called JR. (The TV show Dallas was popular at the time)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. (1) “It seems likely that only a sudden change in style saved the beaver.” Dam!
    (2) The ghost of John B. Stetson, feeling slighted, whispered to me, “No mention of cowboy hats?”
    (3) Baseball caps are a strike against fashionable headgear.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pete, you truly made my day with this research! Wow, I had no idea. I did know the beaver population here in New England was part of an economy for many in tribes who wanted to trade beaver pelts for goods, like pans, cloth, etc. One Nipmuc chief was imprisoned when there was a beaver shortage, since his tribesmen could not find any! The chief went to prison instead of his men. Kind of hurts to think about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve always liked a hat (as opposed to a baseball cap, which I also wear) of the homburg variety, but I only wear a hat for certain occasions because, notwithstanding their revived popularity among ‘hipsters’, they are still regarded as somewhat outrΓ©, if not actually risible.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I have always liked the Bowler hats, they just look amazing, especially when you sometimes see them in historical movies/series. I don’t think I have ever really worn hats, not even baseball caps, though my father has (a baseball cap that is, and continues to do so each day). Cool post, liked the history part for the beaver hats😊.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I always wished I could look good in a hat. I have yet to find one that doesn’t make me look just plain weird though. I think it’s because I am not very tall, so end up looking like a mobile mushroom! πŸ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 3 people

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