Origins of Hats
Though the exact origin of hats remains unknown, ancient artifacts show that hats were worn as early as 3200 B.C. In fact, one tomb painting in Thebes, Egypt clearly depicts a man wearing a conical straw hat. Ancient Egyptians commonly shaved their heads and wore headdresses intended to keep them cool and sunburn free (yes, even the Ancient Egyptians knew the pain of the nasty sunburn).
Whether they be for ceremonial, professional, social status marking, or even just an expression of fashion, hats are an accessory that has been worn by both men and women throughout the world and has recently made a large comeback.
Whilst we won’t quite give a comprehensive history of all hats in this guide (there are so many worn throughout history that will probably never be reintroduced into the world of fashion), our goal is to educate you on the various different hat types, their materials, and uses so that you can not only recognize them in street fashion but also make educated choices as to what hat may work for you when it comes time for you to buy one.
We will start our guide by introducing the different hat types based on the categories they would be commonly associated with.
Sport/Outdoor Activity Hats
Those who play or participate in outdoor sports know how brutal the sun can be and distracting from the game. Thus, when a helmet is not worn, it is common for athletes and participants to protect their eyes/face from the sun by wearing a hat.
As such, there are many hats that are specifically designed with broad brims for extensive sun and cold exposure.
Balaclava- Unisex, Generally made from Wool or Polyester Material
The best friend of outdoor sports enthusiasts, the balaclava traditionally covers the entire face, leaving room for just the eyes, nostrils, and mouth. These provide sun and cold weather protection and can be worn under a helmet. These are also widely depicted in movies being used by bank robbers, but they originally were handmade and sent to the Brits during the Crimean War in 1854 to protect their faces from the harsh cold weather (their name comes from the Battle of Balaclava).
Baseball Hats- Unisex, Generally made from Soft Cotton Material
Probably the most widely used hat worldwide and adapted by multiple professions as a part of their uniform, the New York Knickerbockers first wore the baseball hat on April 24th, 1849. Although they were originally made of straw, they quickly were adapted to be made from soft cotton, with a rounded crown and stiff bill. Part of the traditional baseball uniform to this day, these hats are also worn officially by the US Navy, Coast Guard, in many Police forces, and across the world, as they are commonly replacing traditional formal headdresses/helmets in situations where they would be found to be excessive and too heavy for use. In fact, the Finnish police use baseball caps as an official identification device and disallow civilians from wearing them so they are not to be mistaken for police.
Both women and men wear baseball hats, whether they are attending a sports event, running some errands, or even going for a run. They are widely worn and very versatile.
Bucket Hat- Unisex, Generally made from Nylon, Cotton, or Polyester Material
Made popular and mainstream by their use in the US Military during the Vietnam war but originally known as an Irish Walking hat, bucket hats have a downward sloping brim and offer sun protection as well as rain protection and are very popular with farmers and fisherman. Featured in much of mainstream media, Gilligan Island fans will recognize this classic style as well as those that have watched LL Cool J’s famous “ Going Back to Cali” music video. Most recently, Rihanna featured this style in her “Work” music video. This hat's diverse fan base and timeless appeal cement it as a functional and stylish option.
Fishing/Water Sport Hat- Unisex, Generally made from Nylon and Polyester Material
When it comes to water activities, it is very important to wear a hat that provides great sun protection (in fact, water reflects and amplifies sunlight), as well as in a material that won’t be destroyed by water and salt (no straw or paper allowed here). Most fishermen and boaters prefer hats that come in polyester and nylon, something that easily dries off and won’t lose its shape. Brim width is extremely important. Fashion isn’t so important here, the broader brim the better! Historically, fishermen have worn bucket hats and even baseball hats on the water. More recently as sun protection education has spread, nylon-based extremely wide-brimmed hats have become more popular as they are more sun protective.
Garden Hat-Unisex, Generally made from straw Material
Who wants the sun beating against their face or neck when planting or pruning trees and flowers? The ever so popular garden hat addresses those that want a lightweight and sun-protective hat to keep them shaded while working outdoors. Brim widths vary, but commonly garden hats are made from straw to allow for air circulation (keeping the head cool) and have an adjustable chinstrap so as to not fall off during activities or wind.
Visor Hats- Unisex, Generally made from Cotton or Polyester Material
Though originally designed for use in sports, the sports visor is now commonly seen at beaches and sports events for those who want to shield their eyes and face from the sun. A visor is a crownless hat that simply consists of a visor or brim with a strap that encircles the head. They facilitate fast heat loss from the top of the head, which is necessary for high cardio sports such as tennis, but the drawback is they do not provide sun protection for the crown if the wearer needs that. An adjustable Velcro fastener in the back commonly secures them.
Though hat-wearing was at its peak in the late 19th century to the 1920s, Madame Coco Chanel perhaps described hat-wearing best.
“One must always wear a hat when lunching with people whom one does not know well,” observed Coco Chanel, “because one appears to one's best advantage.” The couturier's regard for the power of hats to confer dignity and attractiveness upon the wearer stems from a long historical tradition. In addition to its practical uses — warding off the effects of harsh weather or an enemy’s assault, for example — a stylish hat has always made a statement of rank, elegance, or self-esteem.
Though much of fashion has changed over the past century, wearing a hat to express one's fashion has not. Even hats worn for the purpose of sun protection come in all shapes/colors/and materials to uniquely express each individual's sense of style.
If you have been on Instagram or watched a music video lately, you will see that the fashion and influencer world have decided that hats are back! One scroll through the “gram” and you will find that hats are the ultimate go-to accessory. Let's talk about some of the different fashion hats you will find taking over the streets and beaches!
Floppy Hats- Made for Women in mostly Straw or Polyester Material
The versatile wide brim floppy hat, whilst being a great provider of sun protection, calls out every beach and city-goers name with its fun, statement providing, and boundless styling. Dressed down, you can wear it simply with a bathing suit. Dressed up, you can rock some heels at the derby with a floppy hat and turn heads. Mostly made from straw, but also can be made with other materials like wool and polyester, the floppy hat is the must-have item for summer due to the sun protective wide brim! Excellent for a day at the beach or styled with a large pair of sunglasses at your favorite café.
Western Hats- Unisex, but primarily worn by Men and made from felt and wool Material
Western Hats, also known as Cowboy or Cowgirl Hats, have a distinct high crown with a wide brim and are the defining piece of attire for the American Cowboy. These became famous as they were depicted in Western Movies in the mid 19th century, but are still worn today by ranchers, cowboys, farmers, fashion lovers, and of course rodeo participants or those that handle/work with horses!
The wide brim is sun protective and they are generally waterproof. In fact, when the USS Maine sunk in 1989, a Stetson hat was pulled from the wreckage 14 years later and after being cleaned off from mildew/ooze, it was virtually undamaged. The company and brand Stetson is credited with creating the original Great Plains hat in 1865 and has maintained a forefront design and manufacturing position when it comes to cowboy hats to this day.
Modern twists on the cowboy hat include buckles and bows, and the material ranges from felt, wool, and least often, leather (as one can imagine, leather can be hot to the head and not a friend of the scorching sun). Shades of brown, beige, and black are most common. Former President Ronald Reagan famously starred in Western films whereas a cowboy he wore a Western Hat on and off the screen in later years.
European Hats and Fascinators- Made for Women, and generally made from Polyester Material
Who can look at a picture of the modern Royal family in England without instantly noticing the small, elaborate, ornate headpieces aside from the women’s delicately styled heads? Dress code etiquette in England, and many other European nations, calls for hats to be worn for formal occasions, such as a wedding or a Christening. Fascinators are basically a hat without the brim or crown (and usually around 4 inches or smaller in diameter), often decorated with flowers, beads, and/or feathers, and coordinate with the wearers dress to complete her outfit.
In the 2010s, a new term to describe the hybrid of the fascinator and a hat emerged: the hatinator. See the Duchess of Cambridge wearing her pink “Hatinator” below.
Fedoras and Panama Hats- Unisex, Generally made from Straw or Felt Material
Fedora hats were named after the stage play “Fédora” in 1892 by the French author Victorien Sardou. He wrote the part of Princess Fédora Romanoff, a title role, for then famous actress Sarah Bernhardt. In it, she wore a center-creased, soft brimmed hat. The hat was soon a popular fashion for women especially for women’s-rights activists and was picked up by men in 1924 after Prince Edward of Britain started wearing them, replacing bowlers, flat caps, and top hats as the new “it” fashion accessory. They have had a particularly large fan base amongst the art and music community, being worn by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra and later being adopted by Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake to name a few.
Fedoras have a wide brim, the crown that is pinched, and a ribbon. A true fedora is historically made out of felt or wool, however, modern fedoras are more commonly being made from straw and paper, to accommodate for increasing sun-protective demand whilst still maintaining the preference of the fedora shape.
Many people often interchange Panama and Fedora hats as being one of the same, and we shall explain the differences in the next section.
Although they originate from Ecuador, Panama hats were introduced to the world’s stage at the busy trade center of Panama in the 1850s. At the time gold seekers would travel through Panama to California during the historic Gold Rush hence many travelers saying they bought their hat in “Panama” (Ecuador lacked the trade and transit congestion that was so prevalent in the dynamic hub of Panama so hat makers traveled there to sell their wares). Later in 1906, President Roosevelt wearing a Panama hat during his visit to the Panama Canal construction site further reinforced the name. Photography was new at the time, and the image of President Roosevelt wearing a crisp light suit with an Ecuadorian made Panama hat became one ingrained visually to many around the world.
Panama hats are made from a special lightweight and light-colored straw from the toquilla palm. They are most commonly associated with having a fedora shape, but they can be made in a boater style or other style.
Derby Hats- Made for Women and generally made in straw or Polyester, depending on the style
When one thinks of Kentucky or Del Mar Derby, they can’t help but imagine the high fashion hats commonly observed on opening day with wide, dramatic brims and fun colors.
One style, popularized by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, appears to be shaped similar to a lampshade and provides excellent sun protection and dramatic style to any outfit.
Boater Hats- Unisex, Generally made from straw Material
One scroll through Instagram, and specifically, summer travel feeds, and you will be inundated with hats on both women and men alike. Why is that? If you are like most people, hand placement when posing for pictures is quite frustrating and puzzling, and a hat is a perfect accessory that makes you look fabulous and your pictures more interesting. Not surprisingly, due to its unisex and versatile appeal, the boater hat is quite possibly the most photographed hat on Instagram. It also has a very charming and European appeal to it, as seen below, don’t you think? Coco Chanel herself was very fond of the boater style and wore it quite often.
Known originally as being a semi-formal men’s hat, the boater has been adopted by women. Today it is still commonly a part of boy’s schools' uniforms throughout the UK, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.
In the days where all men wore hats outside, the Boater hat was commonly the straw they wore on “Straw Hat Day” when men would move from wearing a winter hat to a summer hat. This day would vary, depending on where you were geographically, but you can see from the sea of boater hats in the image below how popular it was on such a day.
Newsboy Hats- Unisex, Generally made from tweed or felt Material
Made popular by their namesake in Europe and America, newsboy hats arose in the late 1800s and early 1900s and were commonly associated with newsboys(though adopted also by the upper-class for hunting or and sport shooting), and were later adapted as fashion hats for women as well starting in the 2000s.
Made mainly at the time in tweed fabric and also known by many as a flat cap (but a newsboy is, in particular, more rounded at the top and almost always finished with a button unlike the flat cap), this hat resurged in pop culture with the BBC show Peaky Blinders in 2013 where many of the main characters wear newsboys hats throughout the show as was popular in England/Ireland at the time the show is set.
Today, it is modernly styled by even the Royal Family as seen on Prince William and of many different fabrics aside from its original tweed, from wool to leather.
Beret- Unisex, Generally made from felt or wool Material
A soft, round, flat crowned cap and once known as a peasants hat in Europe, (farmers and artists were commonly associated with it as felt was so easy and cheap to come by), the beret has evolved as a fashion piece and in many cases throughout the 20th century a political statement., It carries a bohemian chicness and in many cases has become a political revolutionary’s favorite headpiece.(think Black Panthers, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara). In Pop Culture, we recognize the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Beyonce donning their elegantly timeless and stylish berets.
Pillbox- Made for Women and generally made in felt or wool Material
A hat named after pillboxes? As in, containers that hold pills? Yes, my dear. This style arose in the 1930s when hat makers created this new style of head covering which is both simple and elegant, was quickly adopted by both royalty and politician’s wives. Most often coming in solid colors, a thin veil, feathers, pearls then adorned them, or even tiny nets which could be either elaborate or simple. Famously donned by Jaclyn Kennedy, who was not a fan of hats, but found herself drawn to the simple and elegant aesthetic a pillbox hat exudes. The pillbox hat even became synonymous with her style. She famously wore one both at his inauguration and as she cradled him after he was fatally shot.
So, there you have it: a guide of the most popular types of hats broken down by utility and fashion. Historically there have been many other types of hats, but these are the ones you will find commonly today in both street fashion and the runway, not to mention the gram, where many of us get our style inspiration nowadays.