At the turn of the 20th century, Edwardian ladies, particularly upper-class ones, had a very specific look. Starting with an enormous, flamboyantly decorated hat, it also combined a corset, huge bloomers, a blouse with gigantic, puffy sleeves and a floor-length skirt. But aside from the dangers of big shoulders, women wore one accessory that was a real sticking point, scaring men witless.
Just as today, in the early 1900s fashion was a serious business. For the upper classes, getting dressed involved the help of at least one other person, and oftentimes, donning up to four outfits a day. Think Downton Abbey glam, but with less plastic. From day outfits, to tea dresses and elaborate evening gowns, clothes definitely made the woman.
From regular trips to the fashion houses of Paris, to visits to milliners, an Edwardian lady’s annual wardrobe was chosen well in advance. Often using the most luxurious fabrics and accessories, women were dressed to be seen but not necessarily heard. And middle and working class women didn’t have it much better.
Despite women moving into the employment sphere at about that time, clothes took a while to catch up with the changes. Sleeves were less conspicuous but huge underwear, blouses and over-long skirts still ruled the fashion world, even for those working full time. Whether in a factory or an upper-class mansion, attire had to be correct – and more importantly, modest – at all times.
And for all women, whatever their class, modesty involved being tastefully covered from head to toe. High-necked blouses, maxi skirts, ankle boots, hats, gloves and even an umbrella were necessary. But even when wearing everything listed, there was still one accessory that ladies couldn’t leave the house without – a man.
Yes, prior to, and even throughout the early 1900s, women simply weren’t allowed to leave the house unaccompanied by a man. But that’s not all they weren’t allowed to do. Married women, in particular, had very few rights once they took their husband’s name. And that was on top of all the things they were already forbidden from doing.
Unable to vote, have a bank account or own land, women were essentially political and commercial nonentities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition, those that married also couldn’t inherit property from their own husbands. And no lady could ever spend her own money in a bar.
But the oppression of women didn’t end there. For example, in the U.S., females were also banned from joining the American Medical Association, even when qualified, and in some instances, couldn’t even go to college in the first place. In factories or other employment, their working hours were restricted, essentially barring them roles that required overtime.
Women were also restricted from taking roles that involved lifting or carrying. Some companies refused to allow them to move more than 15 pounds of weight at a time. This essentially shut them out of jobs that required hefting anything bigger than a bag of dried dog food. And it wasn’t just the employment and political arenas where ladies were persona non grata.
In fact, women also had few rights in their own homes. If a husband decided to take his wife’s children away, divorce or physically abuse her, she had no legal recourse at all. She also owned none of the household’s possessions, nor the home in which they lived. And for many poor wives, married life consisted of drudgery and servitude.
And of course, those social attitudes were reflected in the fashion of the time. Working women often wore simple linen blouses and full-length skirts which were a slightly more practical version of the outfits worn by their upper-class counterparts. For those women, though, more was most definitely more in the style stakes.
Starting with the organ-crushing, faint-inducing corsets women were forced to wear, upper class fashion was all about the letter ‘S.’ And we don’t mean just wearing designers with that initial. Back the, the fashionable silhouette was ‘S’ shaped. Which meant lots of body-sculpting and restrictive clothing to accentuate bosom and backside.
Alongside the corset, women often wore the knee-length knickers that passed for underwear back then. Next came a chemise-style vest, thick stockings, a buttoned-up-to-the-neck blouse, an underskirt, a full skirt with a train,and then a light jacket with comically large sleeves. Made from heavy, luxurious fabrics, as befits a well-to-do lady, some outfits weighed a whopping 37 pounds. Tell that to the factory owners.
And at least some of that weight women carried on their heads. Not just in the form of the huge piles of hair they had, but also in hats. Gigantic ones. Adorned with everything from feathers to faux fruit and the wider the better. Why? Well, to best understand the reasons, we need to take a look back at the history of the accessory.
While hats eventually came to be a bold fashion statement worn atop the head, their beginning are very different. They were, in fact, borne out of modesty in the Middle Ages. During that period, Christian church leaders decreed that women should cover their hair. So the practice began simply with veils or hoods for indoors and a hat with a brim for outdoors.
And so it remained for several centuries. By the time of the Renaissance, however, individualism and capitalism came together to form Western fashion. Hats, then, became as much an accessory as a nod to modesty. It wasn’t until the 1700s, though, that millinery became an artform. A respected profession in its own right by that time, a good hat-maker was akin to a personal stylist back then.
With hats now firmly ensconced in the language of women’s fashion, over the centuries all that really changed was taste. Narrow or broad, tall or short, loose or close-fitting, women have worn anything and everything on their heads. From bonnets to boaters, and all styles in between, headwear was a style staple right up until the mid-20th century.
By the 1880s, however, hats had become really tall. They stood so far from the top of the wearer’s head that they earned the nickname “three-story.” At the turn of the century, though, in addition to their height, they also got very, very wide. And very, very heavy.
Covered with adornments such as feathers, fruit and even entire birds, the hats became ever-more conspicuous. And, we imagine, quite likely to cause injury should you get too close. Given this enormous headwear, alongside the pounds and pounds of clothes and the likelihood of fainting, no wonder men were petrified of women. But there was one accessory women wore that truly struck fear into the hearts of men. And it wasn’t the dead birds.
Believe it or not, what men were afraid of was secreted in women’s hats. And as it turned out, this humble accessory ended up being a weapon of justice. With the headwear of the time being so enormous, ladies needed a way to keep them securely attached to their heads at all times. Step forward the hatpin. Developed from the decorative pin, they became as large as the accessories onto which they held. And you won’t believe just how big they got.
At the height of big-hat fever, the pins grew to an enormous length, towards a foot long. And in addition to being super-long, they also had needle-sharp points, all the better to get through the huge amount of hair and fabric. That was a combination though, that also served a very important purpose: self-defense.
Women’s roles were slowly changing by the turn of the century and females were even allowed to leave the house alone. As we’ve mentioned, some worked and many used public transport. That new-found freedom, though, came with a new set of dangers. Some men, it seems, were unable to control themselves around unaccompanied ladies.
In the early 1900s, women out and about on their own were often subject to what today we would call sexual harassment. Ranging from catcalls to outright physical assault, so common was it that the perpetrators were given a nickname: mashers. And it seems ladies weren’t safe anywhere. Even worse, victims were powerless to stop the abuse. That is, until 1903.
Prior to 1903, women simply had to put up with street harassment. Reporting assaults to the authorities simply wasn’t the done thing and self-defense was uncountenanced. All that changed, however, when a young woman from Kansas showed the world that fashion could serve a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one.
Traveling alone in New York, Leoti Blaker was using public transport to get about the city. Suddenly, an older gentleman began to physically assault her in full view of the other passengers. The young woman then came up with a novel idea to defend her person and see off her attacker at the same time. And you won’t believe what she did. The masher certainly didn’t.
As the assault was taking place, Blaker calmly reached for her hatpin and plunged it into the man’s arm. She proudly announced to the press afterwards, “If New York women will tolerate mashing, Kansas girls will not.” Women everywhere woke up to the fact that they were carrying a serious weapon on their person and a trend was born.
Yes, across America and beyond, women began to take on mashers and criminals armed only with their trusty hatpins. In one particularly fine example, which occurred during 1912, a young woman foiled a bank robbery using the pointy accessory. Elizabeth Foley was walking home from her bank job in New York alongside a male co-worker. Out of the blue, a would-be robber smashed her colleague on the head.
The male co-worker, now presumably on the floor, was carrying the payroll for the entire bank staff with him at the time. Quick as a flash, Foley grabbed her pin-sharp accessory and plunged it into the robber’s face. Her speedy response later prompted The New York Times newspaper to praise the young woman’s “quick wit, feminine courage and hatpin.”
Another story tells of a woman who foiled a kidnap attempt in much the same way. When a masher tried to cover her face with a chloroform-soaked rag, she used her trusty hatpin to escape. And for a while, this maiming and shaming of sexual predators was deemed socially acceptable. Even then-President Roosevelt quipped, “No man, however courageous he may be, likes to face a resolute woman with a hatpin in her hand.”
And the media seemed to agree. They considered mashers to be lowlifes, with the Los Angeles Herald newspaper putting it best. They were, it said in 1904, “cowardly cumberers of the earth. Any woman with courage and a hatpin can prove it.” So acceptable was assault by hatpin that manuals on how best to use one as a weapon were published, promoting women’s self-defense in public spaces.
The Chicago Tribune newspaper in particular praised women’s defense of themselves, often running triumphant stories of foiled attacks. And male lawmakers, for a time, were in agreement. Suddenly, mashers could be fined for harassment in places such as Nebraska. The humble hatpin, it seemed, was about to cause a social revolution.
That revolution, however, never quite materialized. At least, not in the way you might think. As the debate around women’s rights expanded to include not just personal safety but also the right to vote and employment equality, the public mood changed. Hatpin-wielding women were suddenly dangerous and just picking on poor, defenseless men. And the once-friendly media did an almighty U-turn.
Where once newspapers had praised women’s courage and quick wit in defense of themselves, the tone changed dramatically. The media now claimed that ladies themselves were to blame for assaults. Some suggested that they dress even more modestly, or even better, stay at home. The New York Times even argued that, if on seeing a woman, “a man would not be a very good one,” if he didn’t pounce. And the victim-shaming didn’t end there.
In 1911 The Chicago Tribune even went so far as to say, “The present attitude of American women invites aggression.” It went to claim that any woman alone in public at night, spotted by a man “probably inflamed with alcohol” simply wouldn’t be able to help himself. “The stage,” it said, “is set for robbery and tragedy.” But it wasn’t just women that were blamed.
By 1913, many towns had put in place laws limiting the length of hatpins to nine inches. And while those accessories had been put to many a justified use, some instances had no justice at all. Some women reportedly used them to stab police officers while attempting to evade arrest. What’s more, assorted inadvertent injuries, such as the man accidentally stabbed in the chin, made legislation inevitable. Women could even be fined if caught with an illegal hatpin.
The media, though, particularly The Chicago Tribune, took these accidental injuries and turned them into a hatpin panic, whipping the public into a frenzy over the dangerous accessories. In the end, however, it wouldn’t be newspapers or lawmakers that brought down the humble pin. Indeed, fashion giveth and fashion taketh away. But World War One also played a role.
During the war, unsurprisingly, fashion and style took a cultural back seat. With a shortage of metals, hatpins had to get a lot shorter. But more than that, as women moved into traditional men’s roles to help the war effort, the comparative uniformity and utility of male clothing slowly crept in. Massive hats just don’t work in a munitions factory.
By the 1920s, women were once again free to wear the style of their choice. At that point, though, culture had changed. Edwardian ladies had given way to flapper girls, and massive hats were sooo last season. With nothing to pin, the self-defense accessory was relegated to history, despite the pivotal role it had once played. Fashion is, indeed, a cruel mistress.
Flapper girls chose an altogether different form of self-expression. Gone were the turn-of-the-century piles of hair, replaced with a short, sleek bob. Dresses were loose-fitting and hats were now beaded caps. Women were allowed to spend their own money in bars, smoke and work: they were on their way to equality. There was no place for corsets in this new world.
So while from a modern perspective, being allowed to carry (never mind use) a ten-inch blade might seem preposterous, back then it was clearly necessary. And the #metoo movement has shown that while mashers might have modernized, they never really went away. Maybe social media will turn out to be the 21st-century equivalent of the hatpin. But with less maiming.