13 April 2009

Fashion: 1820s Hats

By Karen Mercury

I was recently gratified to write a novel set in 1827 simply for the hats. Folks, tired of wars and social upheaval, began reflecting on the romance of past monarchies to set their styles. Sitters of portraits in the 1820s were sometimes barely recognizable for the pretty gloss the artists imbued them with. The romantic past was a treasure chest of adornments for womens' finery. Like the hairstyles, hats burgeoned in width and height. Indeed, some of these articles of dress seem to us now to have been imaginary, but paintings by Ingres or Devéria and existing costumes prove they were real.

Hats grew during the decade until about 1824 when they exploded with an uproar of decoration surpassing anything else in the century. Flowers of all manner, tartan ribbons, sometimes four inches wide and "depending as low as the knees," and ostrich feathers were loaded upon hats,--and hats of this sort were worn to dinner and the theater. One giant structure even had two mounted birds of paradise perched artistically on the crown, for evening dress. Branches of shrubs shot out at every angle, and flowing vegetation ornamented the heads of the fashionable.
I got up early and proceeded with Henney to the milliner's rooms...You never saw such curiosities as these Paris hats... Mine, which is very moderate, measures three feet across, and has a suit of embellishments, bows, puffs, points, feathers, flowers, and wheat sheaves, that make it look almost twice as large. The rule is here, for the smallest ladies to wear the largest hats, so that my uncle insists they look like toad stools, with a vast head and a little stem. Mine was the cheapest thing ever offered for sale in New York, as madame assured me; it only cost twenty-eight dollars. It would not go into the bandbox, so Henney paraded it in her hand. A man on horseback met her just she was turning a corner, and the horse was so frightened that he reared backwards and came very near throwing his rider.

My head is now full of finery, and all my senses in a whirl...It is neither fit for summer or winter, rain or sunshine. It will neither keep off one or the other, and so plagues me when I go into the street that I hardly know which way to turn. Every puff of wind nearly oversets me. There are forty-two yards of trimmings, and sixty feathers to it. I am so beflounced that my uncle laughs at me and declares that a fine lady costs more to fit out nowadays than a ship of the line.

-- Lucia Culpeper to Maria Meynell, New York, 1827
I laughed so hard that I was inspired to write this:


A hat was thrust between them, white crepe ornamented with ribbon and trimmed with heads of corn and branches of the tulip tree in blossom. Izaro shoved the tulips in Dagny's face, making as though he built a great wall in New York to keep the Indians away from the Dutch.

The count only chuckled, gently moved the enormous hat away from them, and stood. "These hats are known to scare horses and dogs on the street. Please come up to my house, I'll have my housekeeper make sure you're all right. I won't rest until I know you're much improved from your sleep upon that extinct fish."


Izaro leapt almost into her lap. Clutching each other, they both nearly jumped out of the filanzana when a monstrous fluffy brown bear clambered into the conveyance with them. It was a large and friendly dog, and the bearers paid the critter no mind as they sprinted athletically up the sandy trail, but Dagny had a damnable time getting her "man-servant" off her lap.

"Mandehana! It's a devil!" Izaro shrieked in an oddly feminine tone, wringing the corncobs of the leghorn hat Dagny clutched in her lap.

"It's a dog, you old woman! See? He smiles at us like a giant toy bear!"

Indeed, it was a fleecy creature, whose golden agate eyes faced them down innocently, its tongue lolling from its smiling mouth, its square, cocked ears like fox-fur muffs and its paws like enormous snowshoes.

Izaro breathed a bit more freely, clambering down from Dagny's lap. He even attempted a few unconvincing chortles to display his bravery, but suddenly the dog commenced a roaring barking directly at Dagny, the entire fur of its spine standing up toward the heavens, and when it backed away from her, the poor bearers nearly collapsed under the sudden shift of ballast, and they trended toward a grove of traveler's trees.

Still, they didn't halt at the racket, and Dagny felt no fear, for the fetching dog was clearly only barking at a strange white woman. But now Izaro lunged for her, wresting the tulip tree from her fingers and heaving the entire hat over the side of the chair.

Dagny bore cutlasses into him with accusing eyes as he lounged back into the seat, wiping sweat from his brow as though he'd just endured a keelhauling and lived to tell the tale. "You," she seethed. "You've always hated that hat."

"Mademoiselle!" Izaro cried in a falsetto, displaying an explanatory palm at the dog who was now once again sitting placidly like a cuddly toy, its ruff of bronze and vermilion streaked like a lion's mane.


I wish we had hats like that today.