Mad as a hatter: The curious history of the hat

Orla Murnaghan discusses how the hat came to be: a social and political statement to some and a purely pragmatic choice to others

▲ Art by Jenny Corcoran

Hats. We all have one friend who is never seen without their trademark headpiece. With it, you could instantly spy them in a sea of people. Without it they seem naked, almost alien. It’s simply a testimony to how hats have become central to the expression of people’s identities. To some, hats are the quintessential cornerstone of their being, like others’ beards or makeup.

Study film and TV and you’ll find an infinite list of household names, even some family favourites, immortalised on the small screen by their memorable hats everyone from the timeless Charlie Chaplin, donning his black bowler, to Riverdale’s Southside Serpent Jughead Jones and his pin-studded crown cap. But there’s a reason why this paradigm has endured the test of time: when you wear a hat, you make a vociferous statement to the world; this is you unapologetically owning your identity. You aren’t afraid to let spectators know just exactly who you are.

So where did the humble hat emerge from? One of our earliest hat-sporting records comes from a cave drawing in Lussac-les-Chateaux in France over 15,000 years ago. Even earlier forms of headwear were found on numerous feminine Venus figurines excavated from caves, the most famous being Vienna’s Venus of Willendorf. Estimated to be from approximately 27,000 BC, it depicts a figure wearing a headpiece, the style of which is akin to the contemporary design typical of coiling basketry. Even sculptures of Mesopotamian gods and goddesses can be found depicting the deities in turban-like headgear.

Hats, perhaps most importantly, may be worn as a sign of our devotion to something special. It was the Ancient Egyptians that began the practice of politicising hats; white wool hats represented the aristocracy in Upper Egypt, while the elites in Lower Egypt fashioned their hats from red wicker and elaborate feathers. This paved the way for hats to become political and religious symbols, a practice that continues even today.

For example, Jewish men wear kippot on their heads, considering this a symbol of reverence for God. Kippot can be fastened from different materials, a way of distinguishing different religious communities. In traditional Orthodoxy, kippot are black velvet or silk, whereas crocheted and leather kippot are the symbols of Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed communities.  

Victorians also wore hats a sign of wealth and class. During fabrication, hats were fashioned with mercury, which, on exposure to it, could reportedly lead to symptoms of dementia, leading to the coining of the colloquialism “as mad as a hatter”. Only those who could afford such luxuries invested in lavish hats (and bonnets for women), and they were determined to remind their neighbours of this fact, with ladies’ hats featuring colourful feathers, lace, and ribbons. Some historians argue that this trend owed its origins to the fact that pale skin was highly fashionable in the Victorian era, seen as the ultimate coveted sign of nobility a blatantly obvious guarantee of never having undertaken hard labour outdoors.

This fanciful idea, framing hats as the epitome of class and elegance, had been carried into modern life the RDS Horse Show Ladies’ Day every August is a colourful, enthralling parade of some of Ireland’s most extravagant and beautiful hats, allowing women to showcase their style, femininity, and beauty through these expressive, unique headpieces. Paired with the right outfit, there’s something about a hat.

Something, dare I say it, seductive. One can easily flirt with the right hat. It is tantalisingly mysterious, hiding one’s face precisely when they want it to be hidden, but drawing in the viewer’s eye just enough to pique their interest.

A similar situation occurred with the bowler. There was a time in the mid-20th century when a man would never leave the house without his beloved bowler, much like his trousers or briefcase. This ubiquitous hat was named after the London manufacturers, Thomas and William Bowlers.

It was designed for gamekeepers to avoid low branches when they were out riding but soon became the staple of the middle class. This gradually declined in the 60s, partially due to the growing trend of long hair on men. And you know who else wore bowler hats? Cowboys. Yes, you heard me: cowboys. The stereotypical Stetson wasn’t seen on Billy the Kid or Butch Cassidy after all.

But hats don’t always embody a religious, political, or social movement; they can be personal signs of affection rather than communal devotion. I once read on Tumblr that wearing fandom merchandise in public was the equivalent of a mating call in the wild, and to me, truer words have never been spoken, especially in the context of hats. How many times have you spotted someone in public wearing a green peak-cap with golden yellow Triforce logo, and thought to yourself, “Well, there goes a hardcore Legend of Zelda fan”? It’s an incredibly facile, open-ended invitation to stir up conversation.

What easier way to chat someone up in the nightclub than to compliment their awesome hat, and simply tell them that you too are a huge fan of Mayo GAA (though both of you know, deep down, #MayoForSam will never happen)? With hats, you wear your heart not only on your sleeve but also on your head.

Of course, hats have an extremely practical function too: did you know that the famous Panama hat wasn’t invented in Panama? It actually originated in Ecuador. The lightweight hat earned its name after a popularity surge during the construction of the Panama Canal, when it was used to protect the workers from sunburn. On the opposite end of the scale, we also have our beautiful warm, woollen hats to protect us in the harsh cold weather.

Fun fact: you know that rumour that you lose 70% of your body heat through your head? Fake news, kids. This rumour began circulating after an erroneously-conducted military experiment, wherein test subjects were fully clothed, expect on their heads, and were thrown out in the freezing cold to measure bodily heat loss. Naturally, because their heads were left uncovered, the most heat was lost there. In reality, we lose just as much heat from our heads as anywhere else.

And now for a fast and furious rendition of Some More Points of Information: Hats Edition. Did you know that the word “dunce” comes from the philosopher-theologian Duns Scotus? He created the well-known conical hat, believing that the wisdom of God would flow down from Heaven through the hat’s funnel into the mind of the… well, dunce.  And the fedora hat? It was, perhaps quite ironically, originally a woman’s hat, first worn by the Princess Fédora Romazov in the play Fédora.

This was decades before the Greek tragedy that saw the fedora transmute into the modern armour of the White Knight. Finally, on an optimistic note, have you ever heard the conspiracy theory that wearing a tin-foil hat will prevent brainwashing, a trope that was characterised by early science-fiction films? Well, I have some disappointing news for those among us who fear government manipulation:  2005 studies from CSAIL show that tinfoil actually amplified the frequencies of electromagnetic radiation rather than block waves out, like a homemade low-budget version of a Faraday Cage. And to whoever invested thousands of hard-earned dollars, sweat, blood, tears, and years of scholarly learning into investigating that, I take off my hat to them.