Hats are great. They complete an outfit, they add style, they literally top off an ensemble. They make a great vintage purchase too - vintage hats are freely available, often inexpensive, and not nearly as restrictive in terms of sizing (ever tried to find a 1940s suit in a 38 bust?). But hats have fallen out of favour in modern fashion - seems the only time it's socially acceptable to wear extravagant headwear is at weddings or Ascot. Most people, therefore, even us vintage aficionados, are intimidated by hats. We love the way they look, and we admire those like Solanah who can pull off the look with panache, but it can be hard to muster the courage to take it that step further. Which is why I'm tackling the steps of vintage hat-wearing in what might seem like reverse order.
1. How to wear hats
Number one rule is obvious: with confidence. It's amazing what you can get away with if you carry it with an air of confidence. If you hold your head high and assume you're meant to look like this, people will not only believe it too, they'll tell you how great you look. But of course it's not quite as simple as that (if only!) - it does have to fit with the outfit and with who you are.
Winter is a great time to start wearing hats, as they're legitimate keep-your-head-warm outerwear, so you won't feel foolish popping to the shops. For the amateur mad hatter, the ideal "starter-hat" is the beret - it's eternally stylish, you can dress it up or down, and adapt it to virtually any style era in the last century. A close second is the cloche, which is almost as versatile, but works best with closely cropped hair.
Once you're comfortable with the concept, you might feel ready to move onto the next stage of hat-wearing. Simpler styles such as pillboxes, little toppers and whimsies are very wearable, and the perfect way to ease in - you can work up to full plumage later. Choose one in a colour that matches your outfit or overcoat.
If the thought of wearing a decorative hat to town is still daunting, start with an "event" - whether it's a party or the theatre or even dinner at a nice restaurant - if it's something you're getting dressed up for, adding a hat will feel more natural.
How to avoid looking ridiculous? Well that's pretty much down to you. Even the best of us will still struggle to get away with an ostrich on our heads - you've got to find your own limit. I find full veils are too formal, especially for day wear, so I've pulled a couple of damaged veils off completely, and on other occasions simply tucked the veil inside the hat.
2. Choosing the right hats
Choosing a flattering hat has a lot to do with your face shape. For advice on how to choose the right hat for your face shape I turn to the above article from Everywoman magazine, March 1940 (which also has some great hair tips! Click the image for a larger size)
- Heart-shaped: When you're choosing hats, avoid anything large or heavily trimmed, hats with big bows in front or wide brims, or heavy folded crowns. You need witty, provocative little hats, tipped at a wicked angle on your curls. Your hat should be flat and round, with a rolled cuff brim.
- Long and Pointed: Your hats and hair style have to manage the job of making your face look shorter and probably fuller, too. So your hats must be flat and wide. Avoid high crowns, tall brims, vertical trimmings and brimless hats, because they all add length. Your hat needs a flat crown, a brim, horizontal trimmings (like a bow across the width of the hat). Choose sailor hats, bretons, broad-brimmed shapes.
- Square Outline: This type of face either has full cheeks or a strong well-marked jawline. You'll find that a flat hat or a broad-brimmed hat is apt to make your face look shorter and squarer than ever, while a very tiny brimless hat makes your face look large by comparison. Your hat has to make your face look longer and narrower. Look for high crowns, medium or turned-up brims, trailing ribbons or upstanding feathers, tricks that will give you length.
- Oval Type: You have the loveliest face type of all, the perfect shaped face that can wear any hair style that takes your fancy and any hat that suits your personality.
3. Buying vintage hats
I mostly buy online, and it's been a bit hit-and-miss - many of them have gone straight into my own shop after being tried on once. Buying online is easier once you've got a good idea of styles that work for you, and it opens up a whole wealth of choice - as well as the possibility of some great bargains.
Besides style, the main things to consider when buying a hat are:
Is it in your price range? While extravagant hats are very collectable and therefore come at a premium, wearable hats can be really quite affordable - unlike original 1930s dresses, whose price tags can often easily top $200, a hat of equal age, quality and appeal can often be had for under $40. If it totally works on you but is simply unaffordable, try scouring ebay and etsy for similar styles at more purse-friendly prices. Remember to check the postage costs too - because hats often require posting in a box, this can raise postage costs. On the other hand, it can often be quite economical to ship more than one hat in the same box, so before clicking "pay", check the seller's other items.
If it's a little bent out of shape, this can bring the price down, but is easily fixable - just gently steam the hat and then reshape. Be careful of the trims though, as I don't know what effect the heat might have on old glues.
4. DIY Millinery
Taking it to the next level! Vintage millinery trims (flowers, feathers and fruit) often comes up on ebay and etsy, and can be used to customise a plain hat - which are often cheap, as collectors are interested in the fancy ones. Take a plain straw hat and add a grosgrain ribbon band and some fruit, and you've got yourself a topper to be proud of!
I previously posted instructions for making a stylish 1940s style tilt hat out of an old vinyl record, and I'll be posting another hat tutorial this week, so stay tuned for that.
Images from Woman's Sphere magazine, Feb 1941