‘My Family and Other Hat Wearers’: hats of the 1920s

When you think of 1920’s fashion, some words immediately spring to mind - ‘Flappers’, and ‘Cloche’ hats. In what was one of the most stylish decades of the twentieth century, (well, in my opinion anyway), these two are possibly the most well-known.

The Cloche hat first appeared around 1908 but it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the popularity of this style really took off. Caroline Reboux (1837-1927) was a Parisian milliner who was widely credited (along with fellow French designer Lucy Hamar), with creating and promoting the first ‘Cloche’ hats. The word ‘cloche’ is French for ‘bell’, describing quite accurately the distinctive shape of this type of hat. They were the fashion accessory that could be worn all year round as they could be made from heavy cloth for autumn and winter, then fine straw for the summer months. Felted wool was one material that was very well suited for the cloche, making it a very diverse and stylish little hat.

1920s fashionable dress for women dictated short hair, with millinery to match - ‘’Bobbed hats for bobbed hair”. At a time when just a bit of eyeshadow and lipstick was socially tolerated for the average woman, the wearing of makeup helped give more definition to the wearers face making them feel less exposed without a curtain of hair to frame the face.

Embellishment of the hats was kept to a minimum so the overall design could keep its neat, tight, look. Decorations that were commonly used for cloche hats were feathers, jewelled hatpins or ribbons. Popular folklore at the time suggested that ribbon could be used as a code to show whether a woman was single or married. For example if the ribbon was tied like an arrow, the woman had given her love to another, whereas as a firm knot meant that she was married (tying the knot?).

Here are some examples of cloche hats from the Ulster Folk Museum costume collection.


Since starting my Costume Society Museum Work Placement Award, I have had a great opportunity to get some first-hand experience with object handling of hats of this time period (1920s), this has allowed me to get a good sense of their size, weight and texture. I have created record images, accessioned them, and packed them for storage in acid free tissue and boxes. Working over the last six weeks in the museum inspired me to research images from the 1920s which help to put the museum’s collection of cloche hats into the wider context of fashion at the time.

 This image (below) is from the National Museums NI photographic archives, the Ulster Museum’s Hogg collection (BELUMY.2356).  It shows a family group in Belfast in 1929.  All of the family appear to be dressed in their best clothes, the women wearing good examples of stylish cloche hats.

Image: National Museums NI Photographic archives, Hogg Collection BELUMY.2356
National Museums NI Photographic archives, Hogg Collection BELUMY.2356

After visiting with my great aunt recently, I found some good photographs of family members wearing beautiful cloche hats. The women in the four photos below were aunts of my paternal grandmother.

Image: Image from author’s family collection, 1920s
Image from author’s family collection, 1920s

This family photo (above) perfectly captures the spirit of 1920s costume for women, with a dropped waist dress in a loose comfortable style, all topped off with a neat cloche hat.

With the move from silent to ‘talking’ pictures in the 1930s women’s fashions became increasingly influenced by Holywood glamour and the cloche hat that had previously covered most, if not all, of the hair gave way to styles designed to show off permed and crimped hair framing fully made up faces.

This short film clip, from the British Pathe archives, illustrates some of these more ‘modern’ styles introduced to the mass market from the early 1930s onwards.

The cloche hat enjoyed a brief revival during the early 1970s as part of the fashionable ‘granny’ style of clothing  (popularised by Barbara Hulanicki for BIBA) , that also included crochet tops, knitted shawls and maxi skirts, but it has never regained the universal appeal that it enjoyed throughout the 1920s.

Image: Cloche hat, black silk.  Mid –late 1920s (HOYFM.499.1999)
Cloche hat, black silk. Mid –late 1920s (HOYFM.499.1999)

My name is Aimee Palmer and I was fortunate recently to receive a Costume Society UK Museum Placement Award for 2019.  This two-month placement at The Ulster Folk Museum has given me the opportunity to work with costume and accessory collections and to learn, through practical experience, the skills that are used on a daily basis in curatorial work.

Originally from Newtownards I now live in Belfast, where I graduated in 2015 from the University of Ulster with a degree in Textile Art, Design and Fashion, followed by an HNC in Performing Arts Production at Belfast Metropolitan College.  From 2017 -2019 I worked with a team of volunteer stitchers and National Museums NI staff on the Game of Thrones® tapestry embroidery project. I have an interest in all aspects of embroidery, fashion history, and costume construction.  This blog is the first in a series, based on my work at the museum.