Hats, Horse-racing, and Horrible Histories

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The Cheshire Magazine Fashion Editorial.  Photography by Kat Hannon


Given that race season is just around the corner, it seems like the perfect excuse to discuss the history and popularity of hats!

Everyone loves a good hat. Throughout English history, hats have been a mark of class,  religion, and fashion. There are so many different reasons that we wear hats today, but one of the main reasons is to flaunt personal style and status. In England, we are renowned for our black-tie dress codes at horse racing events; these events are the best place to see a wide array of fancy hats.

There are so many traditions associated with the wearing of different types of hats; but wearing exquisite hats to attend the races is one of the most well-known.

Whether you wear hats to keep you warm or whether you wear hats to keep you in vogue, you are about the learn the true power of the hat.

A Brief History of hats

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in history when hats came about, but in terms of English history, it seems that they officially cropped up in the 16th century.  This was the Tudor era where flat caps were common among the working class; in fact, in 1571, all boys over the age of six had to wear a wool cap on Sundays and holidays. This rule only applied to the lower classes which is why we often view the flat cap as an homage to working class culture.

Soon after the flat cap came the top hat in the 17th century. This hat was supposedly invented by one John Hetherington who was a well-known haberdasher in the late 1700s; a haberdasher is a person who sells items relating to dressmaking like buttons, zips and ribbons. Hetherington wore a top hat for the first time in history on January 15th 1797, shocking the public and inciting a riot. The Officers of the Crown claimed that “several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, [and] dogs yelped”. Who knew a top hat could cause so much drama?

In the Victorian period, the bowler hat took its pride of place in the hall of hat fame. This design was created in the hopes of being a hardwearing hat for farmers and countrymen in order to protect them from the hazards of country living such as fallen branches; however, as we well know, the bowler hat was made famous by names such as Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin, becoming a fashion statement in its own right.

Last but not least, we enter the Edwardian period. Think Marie Antoinette. Think Tall. Think Big. The Edwardian period was the golden age of millinery (women’s hats) with hat brims that were wider than the shoulders and decoration that could barely be contained atop the head! Popular hat decoration included tulle, ribbons, and feathers; feathers were so popular that in 1911 that many bird species (especially hummingbirds) faced the threat of extinction because of the cruel but fashionable addiction to hat feathers.

The old saying goes that we should suffer for our beauty, but it doesn’t say anything about letting the poor birds suffer too!

The History of the Ascot Races

The reason why wearing hats at the races became a prominent part of English culture was because of The Royal Ascot Races.

The Royal Ascot Racecourse is famous for hosting horse racing events whilst enforcing a very strict dress code. Equestrian sports became especially popular in the 16th century with King James I as a key supporter. In the early 18th century, Queen Anne discovered some land near Windsor castle which she described as being “ideal for horses to gallop at full stretch”; from this point onwards, there were many horse racing events held in this area and it came to be known as Ascot.

The Cheshire Magazine Fashion Editorial.  Photography by Kat Hannon

Ascot is celebrated for its appreciation of high fashion, praised for its love of couture, formal attire, and of course, hats. In the early days of the Ascot races, the dress code demanded that all attendees wear a hat, and to this day, that rule that still stands! On the official Ascot website, there is a rather bizarre decree that “a headpiece which has a solid base of 4 inches (10cm) or more in diameter is acceptable as an alternative to a hat”.

Get out those measuring tapes ladies and check those headpieces aren’t below the bar; God forbid a lady turns up with a 9cm headpiece…the unimaginable horror!

Surprisingly, many aspects of the Ascot dress code remain today. Of course, nowadays, women are able to wear trouser suits and jumpsuits which would have been expressly forbidden up until the 20th century.

One of the most famous horse races of all time is, of course, the Grand National. In 2021, Rachael Blackmore rode Minella Times, becoming the first female jockey to win at the Grand National. Horse racing has certainly changed since the 16th century, and thank god for that!

Mad as a hatter

Ever wondered why the mad hatter from Alice in Wonderland went mad? Before Alice in Wonderland was published (1865), the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ had been common since the early 1800s. The earliest known use of this phrase was published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1829; the expression is actually based on the true history of hat makers. Between the 17th and 19th century, mercuric nitrate (mercury) was used in to cure the felt for hats; this meant that many hat makers developed erethismus mercurialis, also known as mercury poisoning. This became known as ‘mad hatter disease’ because it could lead to depression, memory loss, changes in personality, and delirium.

There you have it, it turns out there is a far darker story behind the comedic depiction of Alice’s mad hatter.

Hat Etiquette

As you may know, there are a lot of traditional rules when it comes to wearing hats. Emily post was an American novelist and socialite who is remembered for her belief in true etiquette and good manners; Post is responsible for clearly outlining the rules of etiquette for men and women. As per usual, there were different hat rules for men and women.

Curated Closet: Chester Fashion & History Project.  Photography by Kat Hannon


For men, you could wear hats outdoors, on public transport, and at sporting events; however, it was considered rude for men to wear hats in someone’s home, at the dinner table, in restaurants, and when the national anthem is played. For men, removing the hat is regarded as a sign of respect; If you have watched any period dramas, this explains why men remove their hats when they hear some bad news such as a death in the family. This is also where we get the phrase ‘hats off to’, as in ‘respect to’.

For women, hats could be worn at weddings, garden parties, religious services, in someone’s home, and at indoor performances. However, women could not wear hats if they were blocking someone’s view at the theatre or indoors in the workplace. It seems that women are able to wear their hats more freely indoors and at the homes of their friends because they mostly wore hats for fashion co-ordinated with individual outfits; men, on the other hand, had hats that they wore everyday.

In my photography work, I love to incorporate history, fashion and the wonderful British aesthetic as discussed in ‘What Does it Mean to be Quintessentially British’. One of my recent photography projects called ‘The Curated Closet’ was shot at The Grosvenor Museum in Chester, focusing on the historical depiction of fashion. This ongoing project entitled the Chester Fashion History Project  is an on going collaboration with myself, the Grosvenor Museum and our project partners.

So as you can see, nothing is always as it seems when it comes to hats, horse-racing, and horrible histories…