If you’ve ever displayed even a passing interest in British fashion or customs, you may have noticed that women there tend to be very keen on hats – particularly on special occasions, such as at a wedding. But it turns out that this is more than just a fashion choice. Indeed, there’s actually a very specific reason the women of the U.K. don such distinctive headgear. And the truth may just surprise you.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that on May 19, 2018, Prince Harry and Suits actress Meghan Markle tied the knot at Windsor Castle. Harry, sixth in line to the British throne, now carries the title of Duke of Sussex, while Meghan is the Duchess of Sussex. The pair had been dating since July 2016 and announced their engagement in November 2017.
A royal wedding is, of course, no small occasion for the Brits – or the rest of the world for that matter. In fact, some 29 million Americans reportedly tuned in to watch the nuptials unfold, as did hundreds of millions worldwide. And on such an historic occasion, stunning headwear among the female attendees was a given.
Yes, if you’re a fan of exquisite headgear, the wedding truly didn’t disappoint. From Countess Spencer and her extravagantly large purple hat to the Duchess of Cambridge complete with a flowery white bonnet, almost every female guest bore something atop their heads. And that, of course, included Queen Elizabeth II, who donned a lime green hat with purple detailing.
And British women are so fond of cranial decoration that they don’t all just wear one type, either. Yes, they even go beyond the plain old hat into even more extravagant headwear. So as well as witnessing all manner of regular headpieces, you’re likely to see plenty of fascinators at an occasion such as the royal wedding.
Rather than covering the top of the wearer’s head, as a traditional hat would, a fascinator is more for show. Usually, such headwear takes the form of a heavily styled ribbon, attached via a clip or headband. And while regular hats have a base or brim to keep the sun out of one’s eyes, fascinators are far less functional. That doesn’t stop British women donning them, though.
Americans, however, have developed entirely different social customs. Indeed, the wearing of hats largely went out of fashion in the 1960s, as both men and women strove for more independence and informality in their clothing choices. Even middle-class women began to shy away from headwear after the introduction of the pantsuit – an outfit that didn’t require a hat.
It’s little surprise, then, that by the time of Harry and Meghan’s wedding, Americans were apparently totally bemused by the variety and indulgence of hats on display. In fact, according to Google Trends, U.S. viewers were busy searching for “What is a fascinator?” and “Why do British women wear hats?” during the wedding.
Of course, there has been some truly outrageous and headline-grabbing headwear over the past few decades of British social occasions. Perhaps the most famous is Princess Beatrice’s fascinator, which she wore to her cousin Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011. The huge, ostentatious headwear gained so much notoriety, in fact, that it later fetched $130,000 on eBay.
But the wearing of hats to royal occasions goes back much further than 2011, and it isn’t exclusive to royal family members, either. The truth of the matter is that the tradition dates back decades, and many British women partake in it. Why is it, then, that hats are so popular in the U.K.? Well, there’s a reason – and it’s one that’s steeped in British history.
Yes, the custom has its roots in antiquated social conventions dating back centuries. “Up until the 1950s ladies were very seldom seen without a hat as it was not considered ‘the thing’ for ladies to show their hair in public,” Diana Mather, an etiquette expert for consultants The English Manner, told the BBC in 2017. “But all that has changed and hats are now reserved for more formal occasions.”
So, while you’re now more likely to see a hat at a special occasion such as a wedding, rather than in everyday life, they are still very much a part of British traditions. “When it comes to a special occasion in British society, the special occasion is not complete without a hat,” Hilary Alexander, the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s former fashion director, told ABC News in 2011. “There has to be a hat. It’s part of the social fabric.”
And while the tradition may have changed slightly, there are still a few rules to which hat-wearers should pay attention. The Queen, for instance, has to ensure that her face is visible. “It’s important that the hat has a brim that slightly goes up so it doesn’t shadow her face,” said Alexander.
Meanwhile, fashion designer Aruna Seth told the Irish Examiner in 2018 that there are a few unwritten rules for the wearing of hats at royal weddings. “Hats must be elegant and feminine to match the event,” she said. “They need to be in keeping with the status of the guest – nothing too big or ostentatious.”
But it’s not just royal wedding guests who wear hats in Britain, of course. Indeed, there are plenty of other reasons a woman may don some headgear. As Alexander told ABC News, for instance, “For most people, the hat is quite serious and frivolous at the same time. It completes the outfit, and it’s a finishing touch.”
And according to Alexander, the right headwear can also be an elegant solution to a wardrobe malfunction. “The bigger the hat, the more hair you can hide,” she said. “So if you’re having a bad hair day, on goes the hat, and you can face your public.”
It’s no surprise, then, that hats don’t just come out for weddings. In fact, there are many different occasions in British society that give women an excuse to bring out their favorite headwear, including christenings, horse races and even Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
Indeed, the opportunity to sport headgear even extends beyond such formal occasions. “Hats are for wearing when you’re going to a party,” milliner Stephen Jones told Cosmopolitan in 2013. “[They’re] to wear when you’re feeling a bit glum or need to give your outfit a lift. It’s fun to wear a hat, because how often do we get the opportunity to dress up? NEVER!”
However, there are some occasions in Britain where certain types of headwear are strictly forbidden – even within royal circles. For instance, the BBC reported that in 2012 fascinators were banned in the Royal Enclosure at annual horse racing festival Royal Ascot in an effort to “restore formality.”
Nevertheless, hats themselves are still allowed – and it’s no surprise given how integral they are to the customs of British society. So, while British women may be known for donning all kinds of headgear on special occasions, at least the reason why is no longer a mystery. It’s simply been a part of the country’s tradition for many a long year.