Posted by Susan Doll on August 1, 2011
At the turn of the 20th century, a woman could be reprimanded by her husband for appearing in public without a hat, which was considered an essential article of clothing. According to the website Fashion Era, a woman once embarrassed her family because she left her house without her hat even though she was merely posting a letter in a box a few feet from her garden gate. Men wore hats for both practical and business purposes. Because hats draw attention to the head, the right hat could elevate one’s circumstances, at least according to social standards of the day: An old saying goes, “If you want to get ahead and get noticed, then get a hat.” While traditions and conventions of hat-wearing began to break down after World War I, particularly after women got the right to vote, mainstream Americans continued to wear hats for several decades. Today, however, hats are rarely worn by the general public, and when they are, it is usually for informal, leisure-time activities. Consequently, various traditions, conventions, and lore about hats, caps, and head gear have been lost to us.
Hats are ubiquitous in classic films released prior to 1960. Hat fashions were not only reflected in Hollywood films, they were also influenced and inspired by them. Costuming tends to be taken for granted by audiences, who think of clothing, set design, and props as mere indicators of time and place. Too often authenticity is the only criteria for evaluating these essential parts of a film’s visual design. Yet, costumes can be important vehicles of information. They can serve as keys to unlock the layers of meaning behind a character. With that idea in mind, I went in search of famous movie hats, hoping to find some examples that I could analyze for their symbolism. It was more difficult than I thought, but I did uncover some interesting facts, some striking hat fashions, and a newfound respect for an article of clothing I knew little about.
I divided my discoveries into two separate blog posts. This week, I listed several distinctive hats made famous by female stars/characters in classic movies; next week, I will include examples from male stars/characters. For these posts, I researched the history of hats, which was easy enough, but trying to organize a thorough search of hats in the movies proved more difficult. Space limited me to a mere handful, and I am sure I missed some good ones. Feel free to contribute your favorite movie hats in a comment below. I would love to hear them.
Louise Brooks and the Cloche. According to The Mode in Hats and Headdress by R. Turner Wilcox, the cloche created a revolution in the world of hats when it was reintroduced in Paris in 1923. Prior to that, hat fashion had been divided into winter and summer styles, and day and nighttime styles. The cloche became a style that could be worn all year round and during any time of the day. That was important for the newly liberated women of the Jazz Age. Women also cut their hair into “small head cuts,” as they were known by hairdressers at the time, such as the Dutch cut, the bob, the Eton crop, the shingle, or a shoulder-length cut. These styles hugged the head, which was in contrast to long, Victorian styles with heavy curls piled on top of the head, or with banana curls hanging down the back. Bobbed hair signified a liberated woman of a new age, who was open to modern ideas such as living alone in the city, working outside the home, and interacting with men professionally and socially. Generally made of felt and often tailored specifically to the wearer’s head, the cloche hugged the head tightly and was pulled down low on the forehead, with the wearer’s eyes showing slightly below the brim. It accentuated the bobbed hair-dos and complemented the overall sleek look of 1920s fashions.
Louise Brooks’s star image as the free-spirited flapper or sexually provocative vamp is evocative of the urban female of the Roaring 20s, and her famous bob fit neatly inside a classic cloche. Brooks donned a cloche for her role as the quintessential vamp in Howard Hawks’ buddy adventure, A Girl in Every Port (1928), which was released at the height of popularity for this style of hat.
Bette Davis Is Unveiled in Now, Voyager. In Irving Rapper’s 1942 film, Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a frumpy, spinster-like woman who escapes her mother’s domination to become confident and beautiful. The name “Vale” is significant in that she symbolically steps out from behind a veil to live her life. After a stint at a psychiatric clinic, she takes a long ocean cruise, and the new Charlotte is introduced as she disembarks from the ship for a brief stop in a tropical paradise. Fashionably dressed in a trim black suit, her face is partially hidden by a wide-brimmed hat with a thin veil. During lunch with Jerry, the romantic lead played by Paul Heinreid, she lifts her veil, a motif that suggests her passage from repressed spinster to mature woman. Based on my research, I think the chapeau is a Milan-straw hat with a velvet band, made popular by New York’s famous Knox Hat Company during the mid-1940s.
Rosalind Russell as the Mad Hatter in The Women. Directed by George Cukor in 1939, this classic melodrama about a group of upper-middle-class friends is quite a collection of female (stereo)types. Fashion and costuming are essential to suggesting character traits for each of the women, who were played by MGM’s top female stars of the day. Russell plays the snobby Sylvia who prefers to be called “Mrs. Howard Fowler” to emphasize her prominence as the wife of an important man. Brassy, pushy, and destructive, her gossiping triggers the story’s central conflict, which is the divorce of Norma Shearer’s character. Sylvia is a tactless bully whose gracelessness is telegraphed through a gangly gait and spastic gestures. Broadly played by Russell, Sylvia is costumed in oversize suits, clunky accessories, huge bows, and the largest or most distinctive hats. In the film still to the right, she wears a small torque hat with a velvet wimple attached, emphasizing the character’s tendency to overdress. The torque and wimple, which is the cloth that goes under the chin, was quite popular between 1940 and 1945.
Joan Crawford and the Turban in The Women. Crawford’s star image during the 1930s was that of the working class shop girl trying to eke out a better life. In The Women, she represents the negative side to her image as the ambitious working girl. Her character, Crystal Allen, initiates an affair with married man Stephen Haines, husband to Mary, played by Norma Shearer. The affair results in a divorce, which leads to Crystal becoming the new Mrs. Haines. Crystal relishes her elevated social status, particularly the access to the finer things in life. After she marries, her costumes reflect her newfound wealth, and, tellingly, they are more ostentatious and less classy than the wardrobe of the former Mrs. Haines. The contrast between the two women is evident in the final sequence in which Crystal “outshines” Mary with her metallic evening dress and matching turban. Mary, who looks tasteful in her black gown accented with net, exhibits superior taste, which is an indicator of her better suitability as Stephen’s wife. Brocaded turbans were introduced in the 1920s, and I was surprised to discover that this hat style remained popular throughout the Depression and well into the 1940s. While the material for the turban changed over the years, the basic design did not. In Hollywood movies, turbans were often used to suggest a character’s power, control, or superiority, whether due to her wealth, status, or commanding personality.
Katharine Hepburn Loosens Up with a Stocking Cap in The Philadelphia Story (1940). When Hepburn’s character, Tracy Lord, discovers that Jimmy Stewart’s character, Macaulay Conner, is a talented writer, her icy character warms to his humility and honesty. Throughout the film, Tracy has issues with moral superiority and tolerance for human frailty and is frequently compared to goddesses and statues. Her white, flowing costumes with simple classic lines become a motif to emphasize her connection to Greek statuary. Her scene with Macaulay is an exception, and the odd-looking stocking cap with the tassel on the end suggests she has a playful, fun side, which Mac later brings out. Whenever I show this film in class, this particular hat tends to elicit giggles from the students, but the stocking cap jauntily tossed over one shoulder was a stylish accessory in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Famed hat designer Elsa Schiaparelli introduced a stocking cap in 1936, but Hepburn’s version is closer to a style made popular by Mademoiselle Bruyere in 1940.
The Garbo Slouch. A photo book of Greta Garbo will yield images of this Hollywood legend in a variety of hats, from berets to cloches. However, during the 1930s, she was famous for wearing a felt slouch hat that has been called the equivalent of the man’s Fedora. Garbo always dominated the screen; she was never demure or retiring. And, whenever she wanted to emphasize the masculine side to her image, whether onscreen or off, she donned blazers or suits and topped off the look with a slouch hat. In 1956, this style of hat was revived by Galanos and dubbed the Garbo Fedora.
Twenty years later, the masculine style of Garbo (and Marlene Dietrich) was revised and culturally repositioned by Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977). This time, a slouchy bowler topped the outfit, which consisted of a vest, tie, and khaki trousers. The gender-bending of Garbo and Dietrich’s male costuming gave way to Keaton’s feminist connotation for the highly influential Annie Hall look created by costumer Ruth Morley. Annie Hall’s ensemble proved extremely popular for women during the early feminist era.
Doris Day and the Bubble Toque in Lover Come Back. In the second Doris Day-Rock Hudson sex comedy, Lover Come Back (1961), Day wore a variety of hats described as bubble toques. The word “toque” refers to any brimless hat that sits squarely atop the head. During the early 1960s, a new twist on the toque was introduced with a high crown and a round shape. Dubbed the bubble toque, these cutesy hats were made of printed fabric or in the bright solid colors found in pop art. Day’s character, Carol Templeton, works for a Madison Avenue advertising agency; her solid-colored outfits in white or bright colors topped off by a matching bubble toque were perfect for a modern female professional, who would be familiar with the latest fashions. Doris wears an authentic bubble toque in the photo at the top of this post.
Lucille Ball Is for the Birds in Fancy Pants. One of my most vivid memories from this Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy is a scene in which Hope fixes Ball’s hair for a formal party. Hope is masquerading as a fancy butler from England, and he claims to know the latest fashions from Europe. Ball is part of the nouveaux riche of the American West, and her mother is forcing her to become cultured. Of course, he doesn’t know anything about fashion or culture, so when he incorporates a live bird and its cage into Ball’s hair, we know it will not end well. While doing research for this blog, I was surprised to learn that legendary milliner Elsa Schiaparelli once made an elaborate hat that included canaries in a cage. She was inspired by both the irrational juxtaposition of images found in Surrealist art and the extravagance of Marie Antoinette’s era. The hair-hat creation worn by Ball in Fancy Pants must be a spoof or a parody of Schiaparelli’s creation, a well-known event in hat lore and history. This breezy comedy makes reference to Schiaparelli’s infamous hat to poke a hole in the pretentions of haute couture.
**Special thanks to my friend Lisa Wright for suggesting the hat topic to me.
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