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By Jan Siegel

Jan Siegel
Moments in Time by Jan Siegel

Currently, the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society is having an exhibit on the history of hats from the collection of antique and vintage hats and accessories donated to the Society by Monique Rae. The exhibit runs until the end of June and is accessible from the viewing windows of the Leck House and Silvas Adobe on the grounds of the Society.

Hats for both men and women have been around forever. But for women, the purpose of the hat changed when the church accepted St. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians that “women should cover their heads while praying.”

Prior to the church’s teaching, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans depicted women wearing head coverings. The standard rule of “form followed function” was true in architecture and became true in the development of hats.  The first hats were turbans, wraps and caps that kept the head clean from the dirt and grime of daily life.  It was also easier to wash out a cap than wash one’s hair. Brimmed hats have always been popular to protect wearers from the sun. 

Once trade expanded into nations, the fashion of hats also expanded. By 1700, millinery came to Britain.  The term comes from Milan, Italy, where traveling salespeople sold all the items necessary to dress and were called milaners.  Over time, milaners became milliners, and they only made hats for women. A hatmaker makes hats for men. 

As trade increased, wealth increased, especially for the Royal Courts. During the Renaissance, fashion, which included hats, became a symbol of wealth and status. By the time of the Enlightenment, royalty was trying to outdo each other. Bigger hats, more jewels, and more feathers became the fashion cry for wigmakers and milliners, who were in constant competition to see who could be more outlandish. 

With the coming of the American and French Revolutions, the excesses of royalty gave way to the practicality of the masses. The invention of the sewing machine gave way to mass production for all types of hats. One of the most popular of the period was the bonnet. The bonnet had the advantage of protecting the wearer from the rays of the sun. 

By 1910, hats were again getting larger and larger. Remember the suffragists and their very large hats.  By the time of WWI, hats were becoming smaller again, since wearing big hats was considered unpatriotic due to the appearance that the wearer appeared more concerned with how she looked rather than supporting the war effort. 

After the war, hats again started to cover the entire head. The crown of the hat became deeper and deeper to keep the hat in place when riding in an open car. Again, form followed function. 

In the 1930s, curly hairstyles returned hats to shallow crowns. Wide brim hats in the summer became popular again. 

During WWII, hats again fell out of favor, as women did not have time to don hats and run to an air raid shelter. Women wore hard hats and other uniform hats in the workplace, and they were not meant for social occasions. 

In the second half of the 20th century, two women kept the wearing of hats alive on both sides of the Atlantic. Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s and Princess Diana in the 1980s were the fashion icons of their periods. But gradually, hats disappeared from the social scene, except at weddings and special events such as the Kentucky Derby and Ascot. Even churches started to relax the wearing of hats for attending services. 

Today, hats are making a comeback, as important for protecting the wearer from the sun. Wide brim hats are back in vogue. 

The history of hats is the history of women. Spend a “Moment in Time” and visit the exhibit at the Historical Society. 

Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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