The little hat with the big history: fascinators
Mar 6, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Recently a dear friend and I had the pleasure of attending a gala fundraiser for our local food bank. The theme of the event encouraged cocktail attire and toppers. That’s right – fanciful hats were a prerequisite. The vintage lover in me practically squealed with excitement: a chance to get dressed up? wear hats? raise money for a great cause? count me in! Thanks to years of flea market trips and generous donations from my grandmothers, I have a diverse selection of vintage hats. But, alas, none matched the glittery 1950’s gown I had chosen to wear.
It’s no small feat to find fascinators in today’s shopping age. But luckily, after much internet sleuthing, I found a cute little number to complete my enchanting look. In all the buzz of event preparation, I nearly forgot about the Herculean effort it took to find my new hat. Now that the event is over and my gown is back in the closet (no doubt basking in the fun memories it helped me make!), I got to thinking: what’s the deal with fascinators? Naturally, with the recent royal weddings I’m aware of their cultural importance. But admittedly, that’s as far back as my understanding goes. Join me as we discover more about the little hat with the big history!
Check out these tips for how to wear a fascinator
I think Vanity Fair defines fascinators best as poetic mini-hats. While the exact origin story of this little hat remains mysterious, most credit the dramatic Marie Antoinette as the creator of the first fascinator. She playfully arranged some feathers in her hair and went on to fascinate her royal court with this whimsical accessory. Other historians believe the original inspiration for the fascinator dates back to the Tudor period (late 1400s to early 1600s). The unspoken fashion rules that governed courtly attire during this era required that ladies don a head dressing. These early hats were accessorized with jewels, pearls, lace or feathers. By the mid-1600s, English society was heavily influenced by French fashion. It was all about extravagance and the newly created career choice of millinery (hat making) supported these lavish accessories.
By the late 1700s and 1800s, the fascinator resembled something more like a head scarf or carefully placed veil, made of fine lace or netting. It was an alluring cover that gave the wearer a sense of intrigue. While we wouldn’t recognize these antique toppers as fascinators, they laid the groundwork for today’s fantastic creations thanks to their materiality. All that lace and netting was trimming and if you have to define what sets fascinators apart from other, more functional hats, it’s that they’re exclusively about trim. For all intents and purposes they are a clip (or other fastening device) adorned with trim. Any viewer of a royal wedding or participant in the Kentucky Derby knows that the more trimming/drama – the better!
Fun fact: a topknot in the 1700s is not the topknot we see gracing today’s Instagram selfies. A topknot in those days was a little pom-pom worn in the hair and accented with jewels, ribbons, and feathers. (In other words, a design that foreshadowed our modern day fascinators.)
During the Victorian era, the fascinator became a part of a lady’s afternoon activities. These smaller-scale hats were worn toward the front of the head and attached via a beautiful ribbon. For generations the fascinator continued to evolve in a rather hap-hazard way. By the Jazz Age fashion visionaries such as Elsa Schiaparelli created small hats whose designs were surreal in nature. Her creations were shaped like a shoe or a piece of meat – hats suddenly became a bold conversation starter and the focal point of an ensemble. During the war years, hats became comically small in scale with the advent of the doll hats. But two decades later, this collection of little hats finally got a name – fascinator – thanks to the American milliner Mr. John. The unity in definition gave the fascinator a clear purpose and design story. Mr. John’s first small hats served to contrast with the big hair of the 60s: the beehive. The years rolled by and the fascinator stepped out from its demure beginnings as an afternoon tea essential and into the rather scandalous nightclub scene of the 70s. This tiny hat which started life in aristocratic circles found it could quite comfortably hold its own in any social setting. To this day, the fascinator adds the exclamation point to whatever statement the wearer wishes to convey. So, tell me dear readers, what fashion statements are you making today with your hats? Share your stories in the comments…