A Look Inside the Hat Shops of Yore

No lady wanted to be seen in public without a hat on.

Do you ever wish you could travel back in time just to window shop at all the wonderful stores that no longer exist? You’re not alone, but looking through old photos is the closest we’re going to get these days. We’ve taken you back to old beauty salons and shopping in the 1950s, and today we’re looking at something that’s largely disappeared in most places: women’s hat shops.

Across the years these millinery shops were important for both men and women. Prior to the 1960s everyone wore hats and it was a matter of some importance that women cover their hair when they left the house to not only appear fashionable, but also modest. Men had a variety of hats for different occasions, unlike today as baseball and knit caps dominate many people’s hat wardrobes.

hat shop advertisement 1845
Hat shop advertisement from 1845. Via: Library of Congress

The advertisement above touts the latest hat designs from France brought to customers in Philadelphia. For centuries French fashion dominated the worlds of millinery and clothing. It was only in the 1960 and 1970s that designers from Italy, Japan, and the US began to make waves in the fashion industry.

hat fashion plates 1890s
Via: Library of Congress

Before mass production women could take fashion plate images to their local milliner and request them to duplicate the hats in the images. This was done by hand with feathers, silk ribbons, and flowers carefully sewn on.

1920s hat shop
Via: Library of Congress/ National Photo Company
1908 hat shop window display
Via: National Library of Ireland/A.H. Poole

These couturier style shops were designed for women to spend a good deal of time in. They often offered comfortable seating, mirrors to try things on, and sometimes had models on hand to show off the latest designs. Glass cases showcased some of the more complicated designs.

1910s women in a custom hat shop
Via: Smithsonian American Art Museum

The trend at the end of the Victorian era was for dramatic feathers.

1910s hat shop filled with customers
Via: Library of Congress

During the 1910s huge hats came into fashion, retaining some of the large plumage that was so adored in the previous era.

Tx hat shop 1911
Via: Flickr/SMU Libraries Digital Collections
early 1900s hat making work room
Via: NYPL Digital Collections

Mass manufacturing made hats more affordable in the early 20th century, but the decoration was often still done by hand. Millinery work rooms were filled with hat forms, hats, and women working on them busily.

Department stores began to fill the need for hats, offering some custom services and lots of ready-made designs and embellishments that could be added on if desired.

early 1900s hat department
Via: Library of Congress/Detroit Publishing Co

By the 1920s has had become more modern. They were smaller and hugged the head in the cloche style that continued to be popular in the 1930s, too. The smaller hats were suitable for even students to decorate and classes were offered in trade schools for young women to learn this valuable skill.

1920s trade school millinery class
Via: Library of Congress/Bain News Service

By the 1940s hats had gone up in size again, but never back to the massive Gibson girl hats. Instead the hats remained small on the head to let the meticulously-curled hairstyles of the day dominate the look.

1940s hat shop
Via: Library of Congress/Jack Delano

Hollywood costumes influenced hat designs with some of them reaching new heights a la Carmen Miranda. Custom hats were still very much in style during this time, but if you didn’t have a lot of money you might order your hats from the Sears catalog or buy them from a general store.

women buying hats at 10 cent store 1941
Via: NYPL Digital Collections/Russell Lee

Many women bought their hats from five and dime stores, otherwise known as 10 cent stores. These hats were not as complicated in design and you wouldn’t get custom sizes. But, the fact that both men and women wore hats everyday meant that you could always find something in your size.

By the 1960s many people stopped wearing hats all the time and instead only wore hats for sports, for inclement weather, or for special occasions.

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