Hats in Vintage Graphic Art: 1888-1939

1890s 1930s E M Jackson early 1900s Golden Age Illustration Golden Age Illustrators Golden Age of Illustration Graphic design hats headwear illustrators J C Leyendecker magazine art magazine covers millinery R M Crosby sheet music art sheet music covers vintage magazines

One of the first things we tend to notice about the way people used to dress is that overwhelmingly common, (and today almost outlandish,) fashion accessory: the hat. It may seem strange to us today, but in this time period, hats were not just common--they were a requirement! To see someone without a hat in those days would have been roughly the equivalent of seeing someone without pants today. Shocking!

And as can be expected, such a common practice inevitably found its way into the art of its time. Today we will be exploring the lost sartorial custom of hat wearing as visualized in the graphic art of yesteryear.


1.) Kuppenheimer Good Clothes: An Investment in Good Appearance (1921, art by J. C. Leyendecker): J C Leyendecker was highly sought after as an illustrator of clothing catalogs, most likely because of his tremendous skill in visually replicating textures, and although today he is best remembered as the creator of the Arrow Collar Man, he made many contributions to the House of Kuppenheimer as well. Here we see not only the fine suits the man and boy are wearing, but we also can't help but notice their smart hats.

Being the fashion requirement that they were, no well dressed lady or gentleman would be seen without one, so it stands to reason that no advertisement promoting proper fashion sense would be seen without them either.

2.) Smart Midsummer Hats (The Delineator, July, 1901): According to Wikipedia, the Delineator was a women's magazine that often published fashion patterns as well as home decorating advice, among other topics that were considered chiefly feminine. And by 1901 standards,  what's good fashion advice without advice on hats? This image, showcasing millinery patterns, is well decorated, well composed, and has a surprising profusion of color, given how expensive color printing used to be.

3.) Everybody Tips Their Hats to Nell and I (1903): No discussion on hat wearing is complete without mentioning the (today far more obscure) practice of hat tipping. Women were never expected to tip their hats, mainly because theirs were fastened to their hair with hat pins, making it very difficult to take them on and off at will. (And this is also why, in period dramas such as The Alienist, women can be seen wearing hats indoors, and even while seated in restaurants. Bad manners to anyone else, but those pesky hat pins were an extenuating circumstance.)

As as for men, they always tipped their hats to women as a sign of respect, but woe be unto the man who insults another man's masculinity by tipping their hats to them! Oddly, in spite of this, we see the man at left reaching for his hat when there are no women at right. Maybe the fact that he is with a woman himself changes the rules somewhat...

As for the art itself, this cover was featured on my social media not very long ago. I was drawn to it primarily because of its bold use of red and black. (I tend to really like two color illustrations for their simplicity.) And, of course, the composition and hand lettering are also very well done.

4.) The Bird on Nellie's Hat (1906): As standard as the practice of hat wearing was, (and as nude as one might have been perceived without one,) hats were, even in their own day, ridiculed surprisingly often. Here we see a sheet music cover that pokes fun at the practice of decorating women's hats with all manner of unusual dressings, in this case taxidermized birds! This song, (which was one of the most popular songs of 1906-07, and can be heard here in a skit from the Muppet Show.) is about a woman who is taking unfair advantage of a naive young man, while her all-seeing feathered accessory looks on in amusement, often uttering the refrain "Well, you don't know Nellie like I do!"

5.) Delirium Trimmins (Life Magazine cover, December 10, 1908. Art by R. M. Crosby): And here we see another example of the mockery that profusely decorated millinery was often subjected to. In this case, we see an excessively decorated hat bearing fruit, flowers, a duck, and even a fish! The caption, "Delirium Trimmins" is a play of the phrase Delirium Tremens, and Trimmings (a term for hat decorations.) Delirium Tremens is a term used to describe the madness and delirium that often accompanies withdrawals in recovering alcoholics. The implication here seems to be that decorating hats in this manner was a crazy or batty thing to do. Everyone would agree now, and it was commonly agreed on even then. (Now one can only hope those unfortunate hat wearers got the help they needed...)

6.) Overhead Expense (Life Magazine cover, September 9, 1915): But can you imagine the outlandish cost of such ridiculous fashion pieces! In this case, the artist (whom I've looked up by the "Emery" monogram, but sadly was unable to identify,) evidently had a really sharp wit, as the caption, "Overhead Expense," is even more clever than the last. If you've ever run a business, (or know someone who has,) you know how important it is to keep overhead costs down as much as possible, but if you're buying a hat, well, that's a whole other proposition...

7.) Where Did You Get That Hat? (1888): Hold it right there, Pal! If you think men's hats were safe from mockery, think again! This song, published in 1888, tells the absurd story of an unfortunate gentleman whose grandfather's will stipulates that "If I would have his money, I must always wear his hat." One look at this sheet music cover, and we can plainly see how well that's working out for him. (Don't worry... you might be able to get it resized so you can keep the hat and the money... at least I hope you can...)

In the 1880s, color printing was almost unheard of, so it's nice to see the use of more than just one color in this piece. The red border does a great job of drawing the viewer's eye in to the main composition, which is likewise very well decorated.


8.) Young's Magazine cover (November, 1913): Whether revered as an essential fashion accessory for the civilized, or ridiculed as an outlandish superfluity, hats were very much a part of everyday life. In this magazine cover, we see the silhouettes of two fashionable young women. In its day, one might not have thought anything of it, but to look at it now, we see the shape of the silhouettes altered significantly by one prominent appendage: yup, you guessed it! The women's hats.

Other than this, the use of silhouettes is, to my mind, an essential part of a wonderfully minimalist design. The tile formation in the background, with orange and white squares alternating in stripes, makes for a very interesting and eye catching element of the composition. Also, the neat enclosure of the background within a circle, outside of which can be seen independent protrusions of the women's silhouettes, is a nice finishing touch and gives the image an almost three dimensional look.

9.) Collier's Magazine cover (April 19, 1930. Art by E M Jackson): And, being so much a part of everyday life as they were, hats were the inspiration for all sorts of comic depictions. Here, we see a unique illustration depicting a woman who can't help but satiate her burning curiosity as to how she might look in a top hat. Presumably an employee of the fancy club in which this check room is located, she sneaks a peek at a hand mirror. And, let's face it! We might also have done the same. (Go on, admit it... You know you would have...)

10.) Chesterfields Cigarette ad (1939): Later in the century, when, (despite nasty rumors that John F. Kennedy single-handedly caused them to go out of fashion,) hats were already on their way out, fancy hats were even more starkly emblematic of wealth and high social standing than they had been just a few decades prior. And with wealth and high social standing came a profusion of leisure! This ad, therefore, with its depiction of an aristocratic woman wearing a big hat, and the tagline "for more pleasure," used this symbolism to sell one of the foremost leisure products: cigarettes! Before we knew them as a "teeth-staining, tumor-causing, smelly, puking habit," (to quote the famous anti-smoking PSAs of the '90s,) they were enjoyed when relaxing on a chaise-lounge, when nervously chewed on by stressed out businessmen, and everything in between. So this is a pretty logical juxtaposition, wouldn't you say?

And that's it for this list. Do you agree with it? What other depictions of hats in vintage art do you like? As always, please let me know in the comments so we can get a conversation going.

Talk to you soon!

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