Cute Hat Energy

Why hats? And why now? We unpack the rising popularity of couture millinery.

Key Takeaways

  1. Many designers we associate with other aspects of dress-making got their start in millinery.
  2. Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker Rose Bertin, who is often credited as the person behind bringing haute couture to the fore, trained as a milliner. Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel got their start with hats, and undoubtedly through at least the ‘60s with Jackie O’s Halston pillbox, fine hats remained an integral part of fashion.
  3. Hats are always present in ways that we can forget. They’re a signifier of authority, a uniform. While they come in and out of "fashion," in culture they are always present in some form.

I’ve been traveling a lot so when I’m back in New York I sublet. This leads to me living in many neighborhoods I wouldn’t normally consider. Naturally, my industrial loft off the train stop where discount indie sleaze never went away long enough to make a “comeback” is across from a quote-unquote haberdashery. These things are meant to look like they’ve been around forever and the guy standing outside the open tells me indeed they’ve been in operation since 1959. How’s business? I ask. Well, look, we’re open, his non-reply seems to say.

Though I’m more used to noticing streetwear typologies—the baseball cap, the bucket hat—or the occasional cowboy hat or deep-cringe wide brim Zara circle, more formal or frivolous headgear used to be a fashion norm. In fact, many designers we associate with other aspects of dress-making got their start in millinery. Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker Rose Bertin, who is often credited as the person behind bringing haute couture to the fore, trained as a milliner. Jeanne Lanvin and Coco Chanel got their start with hats, and undoubtedly through at least the ‘60s with Jackie O’s Halston pillbox, fine hats remained an integral part of fashion. But today perhaps the only mainstream milliner to remain is Philip Treacy with his curving hats and decadent fascinators we see decking out the British royals. 

Solange Knowles in i-D, photography by Tim Walker

But in our era of Halston miniseries, Carrie Bradshaw comebacks, Patricia Field in Paris styling, and knockoffs of jumbo Jacquemus knockoffs, it seems to me there’s been a hat revitalization. I’m hardly the first to notice it. British Vogue declared “hats are back” last year, interviewing seven milliners. And if my Instagram feed is to be believed, every alternative pop star and mini-influencer acquaintance I follow can’t be seen without a crocheted bauble atop their head. “I feel like it’s the whole Café Forgot aesthetic,” says a friend when I tell them I’m writing this piece, referencing the New York shop known for gloopy jewelry and runover-Ren Fair ruffles. And it’s true, fuzzy yarn doilies and bonnets seemingly for LSD-dosed children celebrating Easter abound, to say nothing of all the passé memes of Ella Emhoff. So what exactly is going on?

"Hat-making’s inherently twee," Colombian artist and milliner Izabella Benedetti told me half-snarkily. Maybe she was just trying to troll, because when I ask her about it again she hedges, before noting that it seems like the kind of bespoke impulses I’m mentioning seem like learning skills for a post-disaster world—one that likely won’t require the manufacture of fine hats. Twee’s less the aesthetic than the attitude of both making and wearing, she concludes. So what draws her to hats? “I think to me it was about quirk or personality, like an object that is supposed to paint a fuller picture without me having to speak or demonstrate.” Though maybe that’s a doomed impulse she says, like picking up cigarettes as a cool accessory.

Leila Jinnah headpieces in Soft magazine

For New York-based accessories and headwear designer Leila Jinnah, accessories are “a signifier of identity.” She goes on to explain, “They allow you to create layers on top of just clothing.” That included things from her grandmother’s ring to a particularly comforting headband. She also notes that accessories—headwear, shoes, bags, jewelry—are often more inclusive and accommodating, making fashion exploration more stress-free and accessible to people of many body types.

And the twee assessment may not be totally off base. “Millinery is such a craft-focused part of fashion,” Jinnah points out. “No one makes hats anymore as they did in the ‘50s, with special threads that are used to secure the wire into the structure of the hat with layers of buckram, horsehair, and silks. This type of thing doesn't interest ‘fashion’ much. It’s couture, but not the aesthetic of couture.” Instead of producing many collections, she experiments with non-traditional techniques and wear-tests her accessories to ensure they’re up to quality standards. “I occasionally remake my pieces a few times. A lot of effort and thought goes into each piece because I want everything to feel just right.” For Benedetti, the impulse is not dissimilar. “My main interest,” she explains, “is making hats very well, and learning historical ways that I could do something that maybe takes longer but makes me feel more confident in the stability of the pieces.” 

But instead of just referring to fashion’s past, perhaps this craftiness anticipates one version of fashion’s future. As Jinnah notes, “I think this resurgence comes hand in hand with a love and appreciation of craft,” and while perhaps that appreciation is itself a trend, it’s a trend that might be what fashion needs to remain plausible. In Vogue designers cite a desire that fashion “will become much more thoughtful of the planet” (Rodney Patterson) and a hope for “Less global brands and more friends making things for each other” (Jiro Maestu). Sure there’s the trad reactionism of cottagecore or, a century ago, the Arts and Crafts movement, but there’s also the truth that industrial-scale global fashion—fast or luxury—is not sustainable from virtually any perspective. Making things that last is a retro idea worthy of revival.

Image courtesy of Poche Studios / Jiro Maestu

Though did hatmaking ever go anywhere—or was I just not paying attention? Jinnah points out to me that, “Hats are always present in ways that we can forget. They’re a signifier of authority, a uniform, things like that.” While they come in and out of ‘fashion,’ in “culture they are always present in some form.” Benedetti also notes that hats have different uses—she herself only wears them when she wants to hide her hair—but that even the most homely, functionalist hats are often merely aesthetic signifiers. “It’s like the picture of the man at the baseball game wearing a backwards cap while he holds his hand up to block the sun from his eyes,” she jokes, “the use is mostly social.”

And many of these material objects are indeed experienced primarily on social media. They predominate on platforms whose algorithm’s privilege the face above all—to say nothing of how metaverse fashion is likely driving further fixation on accessories. “I think social media is pushing the resurgence of hats,” Jinnah admits, “but I am not sure it's in a way I like.” After the photo what happens? “Do you live in your outfit, is it actually an identifier and part of you” or does it just wind up tossed off once the shoot’s done? “Maybe I sound old, but I’d rather wear the pieces and focus on navigating the world around me rather than getting good content.” Benedetti likewise wonders if a hat is actually “successful” if it only works in a frame. “I’m always wondering if it’s wearable or how temporal it is—or if it’s finished,” she says of seeing headgear on Instagram. “I know there is a conceptual thing, people say,” she adds. Also noting that online “there are no stakes around imitation.”

At the same time, social media can be a boon. Both Jinnah and Benedetti have experienced the positive effects of using the platform in their businesses like many other smaller fashion designers, and since Jinnah frequently works for editorial and runway contexts, she knows that many more people get to experience her work than if it was just on one head walking about Manhattan. “We live in a visual culture, so being able to give people my pieces who then go off and create amazing imagery is a privilege,” she says of working with stylists and others in the industry. And if you flip through fashion rags you’ll see plenty of headgear, even if it’s not for sale. “Ibraham Kamara is one of my favorite stylists out there, and there’s always a hat!” Jinnah says of the Dazed E-i-C. “It’s creating imagery that conveys fantasy but that’s sort of rooted in reality. It feels like a dream that’s not so far away.”