Folks, are you ready for this?! I’m not sure if I am honestly, but it’s time to revisit history from a fashion perspective again. Last year I started a fashion series, called 20th Century Fashion History, and wrote about the fashion and beauty history decade by decade from the 1900s to the future fashion. I’m not going to do that again in its full context, but instead talk about one significant item from each decade. First out is the 1900s – 1910s and the item is the Merry Widow hat! I mean, can a name of a hat be more intriguing? Think not!
The Merry Widow Hat
By the numbers, it’s easy to divide history into it centuries (17th, 18th, 19th century etc), but by the state of society, some historians believes that the centuries should be more flexible than its number. One example of this is the time period of the years between 1789 – 1914, which by many historians are considered to be one time period, due to the industrial revolution and the development of more modern views in society. The period started with the French revolution and ended with the first world war. Even though fashion changed immensely during this time, the first 14 years of the 20th century were indeed very much align with the thoughts and styles of the previous century. You had the corsets, the over-dimensioned blouses, the high collars and the floral decorations. The fashion after the war was completely different with an exclusive focus on function and practicality, rather than details and embellishment. The fashion before the war reflected the past centuries, whilst the fashion after the war represented the modern society.
If there’s one item that signifies the early 1900s’ dreams of past life, I’d say it’s the hat and more specifically so, the Merry Widow hat. The hat was designed by fashion designer Lucile, for the operetta The Merry Widow (premiered in 1907). The Merry Widow hat was popularized by the actress who wore it, Lily Elise, who became immensely popular through the show and would become one of the most photographed women during the Edwardian era. The look of the s-silhouette, accompanied with an oversized hat, had been a common look for some years already. With Lily Elsie, the trend of oversized hats peaked in popularity and it went from a fashionable detail to a fashion dress code.
The Merry Widow hat is characterized by its wide-brimmed style. The width varied, but often hitting around 18 inches (ca 45 centimeters). The top of the hat was decorated, often with feathers (often Ostrich), flowers and sometimes even stuffed birds. Black or other dark colors were most commonly used for the hat, but bright shades of beige and purple were also used. With the hair being curled up towards the top of the head and the hat placed on top of that, the two in combination created quite a voluminous look.
The Merry Widow hat shared many similarities with the hats of the latter half of the 18th century, which were also often oversized, with feathers and a ribbon. The hats of the late 18th century were called Gainsborough hats (or picture hats) as they were common in portraits of painter Thomas Gainsborough. The hats portrayed in the paintings were used to mark the upper class status, which was done by the heavy embellishment and elaborate style of the hat. Much alike the Merry Widow hat, the hat reflected one’s status. The idea was kind of ‘the more the merrier’!
Though hats would have an important role in the later decades of the 20th century too, one can say that the early years of the century would be the last time, historically, that hats would be of that symbol. The hats used in the later decades would be more functional and also way more simple in their style. Though the size of the hat would reappear both in the 1960s (how can you ever forget Holly Golightly’s hat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and also in the 1980s, they were done sans elaborate details.
From a societal perspective, the Merry Widow hat defined the very idea that women’s fashion was mainly about appearance rather than practicality. The men’s fashion had for about a century gradually become more practical and suited for tasks in the daily life, whilst womenswear had more or less remained centered around the esthetic factors. During the first World War, women’s fashion would begin the same modernization, so in a way you can state that the Merry Widow hat was one of the last items of the old society and the old fashion. Paul Poiret surely began this sort of democratization too, but it wasn’t until the start of the war that the focus was with a more general intention.
As with anything popular in society, the Merry Widow hat was also subject of satire. The heavily oversized and voluminous style of the hat, paved way for magazines to mock the impracticality and also the fashion-centered life of the women wearing it. The criticism was partly justified as the hat did take the appearance of fashion to its extreme. If anything, the Merry Widow hat was the cherry on top of women’s dress code that consisted of tight corsets, puffy chests and maxi lengths. Though oversized hats had been in vogue previous years too, the popularity Lily Elise caused with the hat, reflected a society centered around correct dress codes, appearance and status demonstrated through clothes. It was a pleasant subject for the press to mock and criticize, especially since it was related to women and far from what the patriarchy viewed as important.
To remember though, the Merry Widow hat was, above anything, a representation of a society in the transformation of old and new. It reflected the old society and values, whilst society in general gradually became more and more open and democratic. Its similarities with the 18th century hats shows this, with the close correlation of elaborate hats and upper class status. By the early 20th century, these views of society and the classes were still around, but had begun to change. That’s why the Merry Widow hat represents the more flexbile divisions of the centuries in a favorable way, as it demonstrates a society’s modernization with its complex relation to past days and how that was expressed through fashion. The Merry Widow hat was about women dressing accordingly after status, demonstrating wealth, but it was also the last time it was done to that extent.
Folks! Hope you enjoyed the first article in this new fashion history series and reading about the Merry Widow hat! Up for subject in the next article is the 1910s! Xx