By: Dineo Maloka, Junior Curator, Textile Collection, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History




Some hats still worn today have a long history, and some examples date to as early as 1910. The largest hat types were recorded in around 1910, but in the decade approaching the 1920s hats became smaller and flatter. In the early 1910s women’s skirts were narrowing, while hats became larger, often exceeding the width of the shoulders.  Hats were worn as a covering for many religious beliefs and cultural rituals, and they also played a significant role in both tradition and culture. Over time, however, they gradually evolved into a global fashion trend. It was worn for various purposes other than only fashion, such as weather protection, disguise, amusement, health conditions, and decoration. In this article, the brief history of hats, the materials used to manufacture them, and their designs are addressed.


Historical background

Modern women started wearing hats in the late 1700s. Gradually women’s hats became very elaborate. Some wealthy women wore conical hats (meaning that others wore hats with two horns). Hats accentuated fashion trends, for example Art Nouveau (1890-1914) fashions influenced hat styles during the Edwardian era (1901-1910). During this era hats had a wider brim that balanced both the fuller pompadour hairstyle and flowing skirts. Hats for women became more intricate, more structured, and elaborate. Women primarily wore bonnets but through the years they were more elaborately decorated. Hats also served as a material communicator indicating gender, age, social status, and group affiliation.



Hats were becoming icons of wealth and status, and wide round hats, which were decorated with flowers or feathers, became fashionable. Hats were an essential part of a woman’s apparel. Women would always wear a hat when they went to social events. The hats were typically layered on a wire base covered with straw braids. Sometimes, instead of straw braids, they used twisted fabric which was made from velvet, satin, cotton, and tulle fabrics.  


Birds feathers were introduced as part of hat decorations. They would also use the wings or breasts, and sometimes the whole bird was used, such as the Brazilian Toco Toucan, which was discovered in 1776. The species was in demand for becoming a fashion show stopper on hats. Beautiful bird feathers indicated the owner’s status and affluence.



The material was and still is important as it displays a person’s personality and self-confidence. It is indicated through the type of ribbon, colour, texture, and the thickness of the hat.


South Africa has a large variety of material that can be used to manufacture hats such as felt, which is produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibres together. It can be made of natural fibres such as wool or animal fur. Different regions of the world discovered felt during various eras. Ancient Egyptians were startled when they observed that camel hair that fell onto their sandals became damp and compacted under pressure.


Some examples of hats in the Textile Collection of the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History:

Figure 1. Back and flat: Brown velvet hat with bow (Image Source: DNMCH).


Figure 2. Front and top: Brown velvet hat with bow (Image Source DNMCH).


Figure 3. Front: Beige hat with flower (Image Source: DNMCH)


Figure 4. Front and top: Beige hat with fur embellishment, 1975-1979 (Image Source: DNMCH)


Figure 5. Red hat with ribbon (Image Source: DNMCH).


In conclusion, this article has managed to briefly address the history and development of European women’s hats, which gained momentum in fashion trending since the 1700s. The DNMCH, the home and custodian of diverse cultural heritage assets, are proud to curate and preserve such elegant examples of hats in our Textile Collection.



Pauline Thomas (2007-09-08) Fashion History: The wearing of Hats. for Fashion

Abbott, Lyman, 1896. The house and Home, A Practical Book, p. 218.

DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History, Textile Collection.

Image Sources: DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History (DNMCH), Textile Collection. Photographs by Dineo Maloka (Junior Curator).

Figure 1-2, Brown velvet hat with bow, Accession Number: HG 53505, Donated by Mrs H Pretorius.                  

Figure 3. Beige hat with flowers, Accession Number:  HG 17974, Donated by Mrs Cloete. 

Figure 4. Beige hat with fur ball in front (1975-1979), Accession Number: HG 51971.

Figure 5. Red hat with ribbon, Accession Number: HG 48182.

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