Hats Off!

Before he became a boxing champion, Emile Griffith dreamed of being a milliner—a maker of women’s hats. In the first half of the 20th century, hats were a daily accessory, and America’s fashion capital, New York City, was home to scores of millinery shops. Clinton Street on the Lower East Side was known as “millinery row,” and according to a 1920 guidebook, as many as 16 hat shops could be crammed into each block from Houston to Grand Street. Hats were also often included in the collections of premier fashion designers, including Coco Chanel and Christian Dior: Chanel, in fact, began her career as a milliner.

Following World War I, the most common style of hat was called a “cloche,” a bellshaped hat that neatly covered the women’s hairstyle of the day, the bob. Floppy sun hats and berets could also be seen on the era’s film starlets, such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Turban-style headdresses were also popular in the 1930s, especially when made with glittering gold materials. In menswear, styles such as bowlers, fedoras, and panama hats were also considered trendy. Miniature hats, nothing more than a bow with some netting, were popular in the 1940s, a time during World War II when hats were heavily taxed as a luxury item. Brimless hats called Calots were also popular. The most common hat styles of the 1950s, when Griffith arrived in New York, were widebrim hats (like the one Audrey Hepburn wears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), pillbox or “tilt” hats (made famous by Jacqueline Kennedy), and half-hats or Juliette caps, which sat nearly flush on the head and covered the head from the back to nearly the front, like a very large headband. Hats began to fall out of everyday fashion in the late 1960s.

Yet in some communities and contexts, hats continue to play a crucial role in fashion and self-expression. In the Black American community, there has been a long tradition of hat-wearing, especially at religious events. Sunday hats can be colorful and flamboyant, constructed from a variety of materials including straw, felt, and fur and elaborately decorated with sequins, feathers, flowers, and rhinestones. The unique tradition of church hats in the Black community was documented in the 2000 book Crowns by photographer Michael Cunningham and award-winning journalist Craig Marberry.