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Napoleon Bonaparte is often depicted wearing this broad hat.

The History of the Hat

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As everyone knows, a hat is a head covering which is worn for a wide variety of reasons. During this cold winter season, many wear one daily for protection against the weather, while in a few months’ time, ceremonial reasons such as university graduations will feature a much different kind of headwear, the mortarboard.

While there are not many official records of hats before 3,000 BC, they probably were commonplace well before that. The earliest example that exists of a hat was worn by a Bronze Age man with the nickname Otzi. He was found wearing his hat, frozen in the Italian Alps. He also undoubtedly holds the record for the longest period of continuously wearing a hat, since he had been frozen for well over 5,000 years! For the record, Otzi was wearing a bearskin cap made of several hides stitched together and fastened with a chin strap.

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Early hats include the Pileus, a simple skull-like cap worn by freed slaves in Rome. During the middle ages, it became fashionable to wear the Phrygian, a soft conical cap pulled forward. These later became iconic in America during the Revolutionary War as a symbol of the struggle for liberty against the monarchy.

Many hats are made from felt, which may be the oldest textile process in existence. Since it is not a woven product and does not require a loom for its production, felt was made relatively easily in ancient times.

It is believed that during the Middle Ages, St. Clement, who later became the fourth Bishop of Rome, stumbled across the process of making felt completely by accident. Apparently, he filled his sandals with flax fibers in an attempt to make them more comfortable. He discovered that a type of cloth was produced by the combination of moisture from the ground and pressure from his feet which matted the fibers from the flax together, producing a cloth. After this discovery, St. Clement later established groups of workers to develop the felting process. As a result, he became the Patron Saint of hat makers.

During the Middle Ages, hats for women ranged from simple scarves to elaborate hennin, the conical hat with a scarf which denoted social status. Structured hats for women similar to those of male courtiers began to be worn in the late 16th century. The term ‘milliner’ comes from Milan, where the best quality hats were made in the 18th century. Millinery was traditionally a woman’s occupation, with the milliner not only creating hats and bonnets but also choosing lace, trimmings and accessories to complete an outfit.

Certain hats are associated with specific vocations or professions. Although most are familiar with the headwear, the names are sometimes less well known. The Zucchetto is a skullcap worn by clerics, typically in Roman Catholicism. A high member of the clergy would be observed wearing a Zucchetto, after removing his mitre, the tall and highly distinctive hat worn by bishops and cardinals.

The Toque is familiar to all. It is a tall, pleated, brimless, cylindrical hat traditionally worn by chefs. What about the the bell-shaped ladies’ hat that flappers wore during the Roaring Twenties? That was known as a cloche. Finally, what is the name of the broad-brimmed felt hat with its brim folded up and pinned front and back to create a long-horned shape that is associated with Napoleon. That is called a Bicorne. People now assume that he wore that hat to make himself appear taller. Perhaps he did, but not because he was short. Napoleon was actually 5’6,” the average height for a European man during the 18th century, one of the many facts often forgotten when history is recounted.

Pope Clement did not wear a Borsalino, but he is the Patron Saint of hat makers.

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