Saturday, November 6, 2010

Off the Top of My Head: The New York Hat (1912)

This post is the start of a periodic homage on this blog to celebrate (and gently mock) what used to be an essential among a stylishly dressed woman's fashionable tools: her hat.
Mary Pickford in D.W. Griffith's The New York Hat (1912)

When did women stop wearing hats in public? Was it around the same time when wearing gloves in public was no longer regarded as de rigueur for the modish (and respectable) woman? I'm not sure, but today it seems that only occasional toppers are deemed appropriate for women when attending Ascot, The Kentucky Derby, a splashy wedding, or on days when the sun or the snow bears down. Other than that, too few moments seem to call for a chapeau. Today it is sometimes hard to judge when your hat might be seen as just plain odd, or socially retrograde.

At the turn of the century, when a woman's appearance took on the air of a full blown sailing ship, topped by a monumental picture hat, an Edwardian era woman who ventured a few steps from her home to a curbside mailbox to post a letter might easily be chided for her gauche behavior. Her economic status, btw, did not necessarily mean that she was exempt from this custom either. Rich or poor, old or young, a hat was deemed as necessary for respectability as gloves were for the hands. "The dress of women," wrote the perceptive if curmudgeonly social economist Thorsten Veblen, "goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer's abstinence from productive employment." In Veblen's view, the more extravagant a hat, the higher a heel on a shoe, or the more tightly corsetted a lady's waist, the more this reflected her father or husband's economic status. While I would agree with some aspects of Veblen's hypothesis, the female craving for some "bit of finery" seems to go deeper than economics or a spot on a social rung of the ladder, but appears to perch in almost every woman's soul. As the 20th century went on and women's independence bloomed, each decade brought forth more streamlined hats and fashions. This process may have been reflected and  accelerated through the power of the moving image.

The early one reeler below, directed by D.W. Griffith and photographed by Billy Bitzer, is believed to be the first penned by Anita Loos with contributions from Frances Marion as well. It stars a very young Mary Pickford, who plays the daughter of a recently deceased woman (Kate Bruce) whose husband has "worked her to death." Lionel Barrymore appears as a pastor left with a legacy from the mother, asking that he use it to give her daughter some of the finery she has longed for and you may catch a glimpse of Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and Jack Pickford in the background of this film's brief scenes. Gossip, scandal, pettiness, misinterpretation of the facts and a happy resolution complicate the simple little story, which is beautifully enacted by Barrymore and Pickford in just under 12 minutes in The New York Hat (1912):



Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I believe my mother (who, at least by photographs I've seen must have had a stunning collection of hats in the 1940s), once mentioned that what really killed the women's hat industry was when cars began to be manufactured with lower roofs, sometime in the 1960s. The pillbox hat was partially in response to that (and partly due to President Kennedy's First Lady and other famous wearers). A few more years and the compact car and no more head gear.

Hats are also seen as formal, and we have anything but a formal society anymore. Few men will wear anything but a ball cap, perhaps fearing looking too dressed up.

Fun post, thanks.

Moira Finnie said...

I believe that the growth of more casual daily wear was indeed responsible for the downfall of the hat, though I like the theory about the head room in modern cars (which makes me wonder if it was the chicken or the egg that led to the compacted space in the interior).

JFK's aversion to hats really put the kibosh on the men's hat, though it makes periodic returns. I believe that the First and Second World Wars and the need to conserve materials, for speed and equality in work that came out of those upheavals eroded the hat's grip on society's decorum. In 8th grade, I was taught by a nun who claimed that it was all due to the failure of families to attend church together. As a lass, I used to think she was just another pious whack job, but now realize that her POV has some real validity! I guess she got smarter as I got less cynical. ;-)

Thanks so much for posting a comment.


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