Against the odds, hats are the accessory we need now

A new coffee table book from Rizzoli traces the rich history of millinery from fashion house Christian Dior

Wilhelmina cooper dior Bert Stern
Wilhelmina Cooper on the cover of Vogue in 1964 wearing a floral Dior hat Credit: Bert Stern via Getty Images

Logic suggests this is a very bad time to be a milliner. Weddings, Ascot and royal garden parties are off the menu. What is there to dress for? Peer beyond the quivering feathers and the piles of silk flowers however, and a different kind of hat is standing staunch.

Straw hats have been gaining momentum for a summer or more, boosted in no small way by Instagram, where amateur stylists and photographers have discovered what Lucinda Chambers, former Fashion Director of British Vogue has known for years: when you don’t know what’s missing from a picture, try a hat.

The prospect of holidays in our garden and a long spell of sunshine is helping sales of straw hats reach lift off. Plus – and this is my own, not entirely scientific theory – even a modest 8 cms brim throws an optical cordon sanitaire around you. No one will breach the two metre rule when you’re suitably brimmed up. It’s too much effort.

As a new book of hats from Dior illustrates, it’s this habit hats have of encapsulating their times with a few strategically placed silk petals that makes them compelling. That, and their construction. They are small (and not so small) pieces of architecture. 

In almost all cultures throughout history, headgear of some kind became de riguer for all classes. Dispensing with it, or at least make it smaller and more navigable -  has always been viewed as a counter cultural step, until the urge to show off reasserts itself. 

Beige wide-brim, £29, Arket; Printed, £18, Biba at House of Fraser; Wide brim with bow-detail, £40, 8 by Yoox; Navy, £40, Boden; Tan, £55, Jaeger; Pink wide-brim, £29, Arket

Hats became so cumbersome in the Gilded Age that a Countess Greffulhe formed The League of Little Hats in order to stop hair constructing getting out of hand. 

In the 1920s, an obsession with modernity ushered in small, neat cloche hats, in direct contrast to the ever larger wire and iron framed picture hats of the Edwardians.  

By the 1930s, nostalgia and romanticism had got the better of modernism and cloches, and hats grew larger and more elaborate. Another world war put a stop to that. 1940s hats were often made from paper and wood shavings – although what they lacked in circumference they sometimes made up for in height. A hat wearer has to express her defiance where she can.

DIOR Hats: From Christian Dior to Stephen Jones published by Rizzoli Credit: Rizzoli

Now, although we’re supposedly in a socially mobile, hatless world, hats flourish – from fedoras and trilbies, to beanies and the increasingly ubiquitous Panama and other straw variations. At Dior they never went away. If not actually written into their contracts, all Dior’s designers seem compelled to use hats in their collections.

Maria Grazia Chiuri, its current Creative Director, loves a beret. Raf Simons, her predecessor had a penchant for minimalist, translucent abstractions. For 30 years, this grandest of French houses has had its millinery dreams fed by the supremely British milliner, Stephen Jones, one of several contributors to this generously illustrated, absorbing book. 

DIOR Hats: From Christian Dior to Stephen Jones is published by Rizzoli, £42, out on June 3rd

Lisa Armstrong's column appears each Saturday in The Saturday Telegraph and is published online every Saturday at 7am on Telegraph Fashion.

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