Steampunk inspiration and resources

Hats Off

Hat’s Off to the Flight Cap

I don’t have any kids yet, but I already have plans to dress my future children in a variety of silly outfits. And no, I don’t just mean Halloween, I mean as long as possible before they catch on. Because let’s face it, shrinking down just about anything, making it really soft, and putting it on some unsuspecting kid is just about as adorable as it gets. Take flight caps, for instance. If I see a kid in a tiny aviation outfit I can’t help but squeeeee with joy. Like this kid. Am I right?


Of course I am. 🙂

But where did these iconic caps come from? It turns out they have been a part of aviation since aviation was just a baby.

When the Wright Brothers made their famous first flight in 1903, Orville was definitely wearing a hat. No man of that era would be caught outside without one. On that day, he wore something akin to a page boy cap, but of course flying is a windy occupation and it was basically impossible to keep a regular hat in place. Plus, the pilot’s ears would get cold as the plane climbed and they needed protection.

By 1908,  Wilbur had a brand new hat that quickly became a sensation, not just for people in flight, but also in Parisian fashion. The tight-fitting but soft leather cap (though not the goggles yet) was nicknamed the “Vilbur” and was popular for a short time among young men and boys. Soon after, aviator Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel, and he added the goggles to protect his eyes from oil and other debris. And you can bet Amelia Earhart got into the action, with her custom-made white cap to match her white flying jacket.

Amelia from Dan Patterson collection

So there you have it. The flight cap and the goggles that we all know and love to wear as part of our Steampunk ensembles grew up alongside the airplane from the very start. I picked up a WWII aviation cap while I was in Bulgaria and wear it with a purple ad black tutu-bustle. Not the least bit accurate, but it sure is a comfy hat!

Here are a few other examples of Steampunk flight caps. Enjoy!

Hats Off to the Pork Pie

The name “pork pie hat” can refer to a number of different hats that were popular starting in the 1830s and continued to be worn all the way into the middle of the 20th century. As you probably guessed, it got its name from the British meat pie which, like the hat itself, can vary widely in terms of quality and fanciness. The most popular style of pork pie during the steam era was called the Melton Mowbary due to the prevalence of pig farming in the area near Leicester. It was a simple pie with a hand molded crust, uncured pork, and ‘meat jelly’ (which sounds pretty gross but helps to fill in gaps between the pieces of meat for even baking) and could be served hot or cold. If you want to know more, you can visit the (no joke) Melton Mowbary Pork Pie Association website. Pork pies, and so that hats named after them, were cylindrical, but unlike a flat top hat, pork pie hats have a distinctive crown. This raised edge is what truly makes something a pork pie hat.

From the MMPPA website

From the MMPPA website

When pork pie hats were first introduced, they were mostly worn by women in American and Great Britain. They had small brims and were often adorned with a feather or two. They could be made from any material, such as straw, silk, or felt. They fell out of favor around the beginning of the American Civil War, and did not become a man’s fashion accessory until the 1920’s.

Buster Keaton

Actor Buster Keaton was hardly ever seen without his trusty straw pork pie, and this brought the style back into favor for several decades. On a fun side note, Keaton actually made his own pork pie hats by taking fedoras and other hats that were already constructed and altering them. He made over a thousand hats this way in his lifetime. Pork pies became flashier during the 1930s and 40s, and became strongly associated with jazz music and the zoot suit.

Nowadays, the pork pie hat is still seen in some forms of military dress, such as the US Navy, as well as being popular among hipsters.



Hats Off to the Top Hat

I tell you, there aren’t nearly enough hats in our everyday lives. Sure, there are beanies and baseball caps, but on the whole your average snowman is better dressed than today’s most fashionable males. Luckily, there is Steampunk, which gives all gents (and ladies) a chance to step up their millinery game.

TopHatBTNSwimClub1860sThe top hat’s origins are fuzzy, but many fashion historians believe it was an evolution from something called the “sugarloaf hat,” but we would probably say it was a “pilgrim hat” nowadays (minus the apocryphal buckle, that is). In the transition from loaf to “high hat” (aka silk hat, topper, cylinder hat, stovepipe hat, chimney pot hat) the whole thing became more rigid and the brim retreated. Like the early Stetsons, top hats were often made from beaver, but later silk also became de rigueure.

Top hats were made through a process known as blocking, where the hatter started with a wooden frame and draped it with a material such as gossamer which was then covered in shellac and ammonia, and left to cure for several weeks even months. Later, felt was cut and applied to the frame and a hot iron helped to re-melt the shellac and attach the fabric to the frame. If the hat was meant for use in the country for activities such as hunting and horseback riding, the gossamer layer would be much thicker to add durability. Most toppers also had a leather band on the inside to catch sweat and keep the hat from moving around too much.

victorianridingclothingWomen would also sometimes wear top hats in the steam era, and you see plenty of it in Steampunk and burlesque fashion nowadays. In the city it was not so regular an occurrence, but while out riding women would sometimes wear a smaller version of the top hat that often had a veil.

Top hats were considered both day and evening wear, which may seem strange to us now. If we see a man sporting this type of hat he is more than likely wearing a tuxedo (and perhaps tap-dancing in a throwback, Broadway musical.) The British royal family and some of their officials do continue to wear top hats for certain events, such as attending horse-racing and certain ceremonies.

7c2195f5df082758636302dfce5595b0One of the features you often see in Steampunk attire is a top hat with goggles resting on the brim. In reality, there wouldn’t be that many occasions when a gent would be wearing both a topper and goggles. Goggles were certainly used while driving and perhaps ballooning, but that aerodynamics of a top hat would make it a poor choice for this type of activity. But, Steampunk is an aesthetic, not historical fact, and the goggles look pretty sweet no matter if they are on the brim, on one’s face or hanging around one’s neck anywho.

Other Steampunk adaptations include clock faces and hands, raucous colors, alternative materials, and other aesthetically pleasing, though not wholly practical, adornments, such as corset strings. Here are some fun Steampunk top hats I found around the interwebs. Enjoy!


Hats Off to the Bonnet

So far in the Hats Off series I have only talked about men’s hats. This is probably because I personally prefer to wear the styles that are meant for gents, but the ladies of the steam era were all be-hatted as well. For much of the 19th century, if a lady only owned one type of hat, it was going to be a bonnet.

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House bonnet circa 1809

Starting in the late 1700s, “house bonnets” made of a soft material, such as cotton, were always worn by women in their homes. They sometimes has decorative ribbon, but for the most part they were simple garments meant to conceal the hair. Hats were sometimes worn out of the house with the bonnet underneath, but in general large hats were out of fashion in all of Western Europe because of the more “democratic” styles adopted by the French after the Revolution.

Within a few years of the turn of the 19th century, straw bonnets had become the norm for women. These replaced the “shepherdess” hats of the previous century, which also had wide brims to protect one’s complexion from sun exposure, but were softer and slouchier than crisp bonnets. Instead of straw, bonnets were also sometimes made from a special process of pressing cardboard, and these were known as board bonnets. They were less expensive than straw hats, and at the time much of the hat straw industry was located in french-controlled Egypt. This was in the thick of the Napoleanic Wars (1803-1815), so trade with France was greatly reduced during this period. Another alternative to straw was buckram, which is a type of linen, and these were sometimes covered with silk.

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a-victorian-coal-scuttle-with-shovel-161709By the 1830s, bonnets had gotten really big. The brims would usually completely cover a woman’s profile, and many of them also had veils to hide her features from the front. Straw was again widely available, and the “coal-scuttle” style, so named because it resembled a bucket, was all the rage. This brim expansion was both to protect the wearer from the sun in the days before parasols were fashionable, and from prying eyes. It also effectively put blinders on her, as she could not see to the left or right without turning her head.

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Over the next few decades, the brim began to retreat, but bonnets continued to cover all of the hair and much of the profile. In the middle of the century, another feature called the “Bavolet” was added, which was made of ribbon or frilly fabrics and covered the neck (widely considered an erogenous zone at this time).

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Around the 1850s, women’s hats began to shrink in a large part due to the prevalence of parasols, which took over the job of keeping away freckles. So stay tuned for more about hats for both ladies and gents as this series continues.

Hat’s Off to the Stetson

1800s_Boss_of_the_plains_5If I told you I saw a cowboy, you would immediately have a picture in your mind of what I meant. Spurs or no spurs, you’d be picturing a man wearing a hat with a tall crown and a wide brim. This basic design, first called “The Boss of the Plains” model, came into being in 1865 in the small workshop of John B. Stetson.

He was born in 1830, and like so many men his age he was called westward by the promise of gold. The story goes that while he was in Colorado hunting with some buddies he put on a little demonstration about the benefits of making a hat with no tanned leather. He used felt, in this case made from beaver fur but any natural fiber will do, to fabricate something that was meant as a joke, but turned into an icon. The wide brim kept the sun and rain out of his face and the tall crown left a space above his head to carry a canteen.

In 1865 he ended his wanderings and opened up his hat shop where the first “Boss” was made. At first each hat was handmade and constructed of expensive materials (it takes 42 beaver pelts to make enough felt for one hat), wearing a real Stetson was a mark of wealth in the Old West. They also had the advantage of being adjustable, thus the band where the brim meets the crown.

John_B._Stetson_Co._Factory,_Philadelphia,_PA_1894By 1886, his hat factory grew to be the largest in the world and included the newest innovations in mechanized haberdashery, but the reputation for quality was already in place despite losing the handmade touch. In 1894, he had a factory that covered 9 full acres at his disposal.

Tom Mix was an actor in the 1930s who often portrayed cowboys and always wore a 10-gallon hat

Tom Mix was an actor in the 1930s who often portrayed cowboys and always wore a 10-gallon hat

Over time several variations on the original style arose, and especially in Texas the “10-gallon” hat became the favorite. Felt hats are waterproof, and an early advertisement of this over-sized model showed a cowboy dipping his hat into a stream to water his horse. Other variations were worn by military and police officers both in the US and abroad. For instance, the Canadian Mounted Police still wear a Stetson with a flat brim even today.

Like Bowlers, Stetsons are a popular accessory to upcycle into a Steampunk, so here are a few of my favorite Steampunk cowboy hats from around the interwebs.

Hats Off to the Fez

74071The red conical hat with a black tassel is very familiar sight for many movie and television fans. Characters and extras in movies set in Egypt like The Mummy and Raiders of the Lost Ark are often seen wearing them, and Doctor Who’s 11th Doctor has an affinity for a good fez as well. But beyond their iconic shape, most people don’t anything of the fascinating history they represent.

Fezzes actually started out as part of Ottoman military uniforms in 1826, and later were mandated dress for civil servants as well. In an attempt to modernize his country in 1829, Sultan Muhmad II banned the wearing of turbans which lead to the widespread adoption of fezzes, especially by Muslims who must cover their heads as part of their religious practices. The materials used and method of wrapping a turban carry great social significance and can act as a way to denote wealth, so by moving people towards wearing fezzes instead, the Sultan was promoting a more egalitarian mode of dress.

Istanbul from 1870s-1900s (1)

Nowadays, fezzes you see are always red and probably have a black tassel. But when they were first created there was a much larger degree of variation in color and shape. Originally, fezzes were wrapped with cloth and were some combination of red, white and black, but eventually settled on a rich, dark red. When synthetic red dyes were invented in the late 19th century, production of fezzes shifted to factories of the Czech Republic, which was under the rule of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary at the time.

The relationship between Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans was a shaky truce between three states that all wanted control of the Balkan region in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877-78. The Congress of Berlin in 1881 brought them to the table with Italy, Britain and Germany to divvy up the spoils. The influx of cheap goods from Europe, like the fez, was already undercutting the Ottoman economy, so when Austria-Hungary announced their annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 (which the Ottomans controlled on a technicality), they couldn’t let it stand. This transgression resulted in a boycott of all Austrian goods and was known as The Fez Boycott.

Istanbul from 1870s-1900s (8)

Hat’s Off to Bowlers

A big part of the nonfiction Steampunk book I am writing is going to be a series of timelines to help place people, places, events and cultural movements in relation to one another. I am really looking forward to doing this coming up in the Fall, and the first I am working on is about fashion. So as I delve into my research I will be writing a new monthly series that is going to focus on different types of hats. This month will pay homage to the steampunkiest of hats, the Bowler.

found on The Graphics Fairy website

found on The Graphics Fairy website

As with any mention of a Stetson, Bowler should always be capitalized because it is named after a person, or in this case, persons. The brothers Thomas and William Bowlers first created the hat in 1849. Their task was to create a hat that would protect the head of Edward Coke, the brother of the second Earl of Leicester, and other men who pursued horseback riding and other outdoor gaming in their leisure time. According to the story, when Coke showed up to pick up the hat he stamped on it to test its strength. In later years the Bowler became associated with city gentlemen, and beat out other men’s headgear as the most popular in both the UK and America in the 19th century. By the 21st century, we don’t have many examples of Americans still wearing them, but they are still required garb for many men in England. During the annual military parade, for instance, they are part of the military costume.

In Steampunk circles, it not uncommon to see women sporting a Bowler hat as well, or to see tricked out Bowlers that include goggles or other steamy adornments. I compiled a fun gallery of just a few of the many Bowler hat adaptations out there on the interwebs. Enjoy!