The Power of Hats

Symbolic, comical, transformative: the hat, in its many forms, means a great deal to a great many. Drake Stutesman, author of Hat: Origins, Language, Style, explores our enduring passion for hats, from the Ice Age to today.


Enchanted hats, in worldwide folklore, are known as transformers. They change people into beings who can extend themselves, suddenly, beyond their everyday selves. The magic hat offers uncanny, extraordinary gifts. It gives the wearer power such as flight and invisibility, ushers a person into new dimensions and secret worlds, exposes mysteries, grants impossible wishes and snatches the wearer from danger.

Present since the Great Ice Age, these miraculous hats still abound today. They appear as the magician’s top hat, out of which rabbits spring; the Harry Potter Sorting Hat, a large, misshapen pointed fedora that cannily guides the psyche to a deeper state of self-understanding; and the divine Hermes’ winged hat, once emblematic of the Art Deco movement and which remains a sign of speed and elegance.

These examples have deep roots in the past and yet are active in culture, referenced often, and easily recognized. Why are they so appealing? They remain key, not only to the way in which people relate to clothing but in the way that culture perceives power, because the transformative nature of the hat is a concept so embedded in most cultures and so entrenched in human consciousness that it has never lost relevance. The hat has always been endowed with an ability to impart properties to its wearer and then to be emblematic of what that signifies. How unusual, and far-reaching, this supernatural role is.

In my new book, Hat: Origins, Language, Style, I look at how the hat appears at least 30,000 years ago in the Ice Age, possibly representing the skill of weaving, but also possibly representing the new developments of human culture, and the beginnings of abstract and conceptual thinking.

Above: The ‘Woman of Willendorf’, a figurine of a naked woman with a faceless head, approximately 28,000–25,000 years old and found in Germany, wears a skullcap-shaped, possibly woven, hat.

The hat is linked to the earliest signs of this kind of thinking – as people, in that era, before making figurative images, created symbolic markings composed of the circle, square and triangle. The hat, through thousands of years, has conformed to these shapes, and has retained the status of representing government (such as the crown), religion (such as the turban), and custom (such as the bonnet), to name a few, as well as hats that are beautiful and practical (such as Asia’s wide, conical hat), and hats that become emblems of entertainment (Charlie Chaplin’s bowler) or affiliation (gang hat) and much more.

These categories and how much we identify with them and their symbolic powers overlap with the concept of the magical hat. The ‘ordinary’ hat also confers transformative powers – the crown inaugurates leadership; the turban connects to faith; the bonnet and gang hat bond affiliation. Though a marker for these crucial elements of any society, the hat also remains something that people use to signal their personal identity. It reflects both the individual and the culture they live in.

The hat has had a wild ride though history. With a focus on Western trades and beginning in the Middle Ages, Hat: Origins, Language, Style also looks at the complexities of the long labor history. The world of hat-making, and its divide between the female milliners and the male hatters, moves from the handmade to the industrial and its story is as electric with genius, revolution and stardom as it is poisoned with illness, slavery and prejudice.

Above: Milliner Dinu Bodiciu’s graceful, mysterious red hat, 2011.

Milliners, in particular, through years of difficulty and slander, rose to become the orchestrators of the one of the 20th century’s great economies, as well as superstars of that era. Millinery also was the foundation of the some of the most iconic couturiers who shaped fashion – Coco Chanel, Halston, Charles James and Jean Lanvin all began as milliners.

But the 21st century has carried on this inventive and fabulous world of hats with new millinery superstars such as Philip Treacy, Nick Fouquet, Maiko Takeda and Muriel Nisse. And hats continue to carry deep messages for our cultures, be it the way we wear them – perhaps to the side or tilted forward – or how we respond to their multiple codes. Hats are always fresh to us and have never lost their phenomenal resonance.

– Drake Stutesman

To read more about the remarkable history of hats, order Hat: Origins, Language, Style from our online shop. Author Drake Stutesman is an adjunct professor at New York University. She edits the cinema and media journal, Framework, and is the author of Snake (Reaktion Books, 2005) and co-editor of Film, Fashion and the 1960s (2017).