As a milliner once told us, the presence of a hatbox does funny things to people. It makes them instantly curious, in an unexpected but wonderful way. A hatbox is, after all, just a box for a hat. But carry a hatbox down the road, or on the bus, and the overwhelming response you will get will be that of intrigue. What’s in it? What does it look like? Where did you get it?
The wonder of a hat seems universal in its appeal – so we’ve put together eight facts that unravel the mysteries of millinery.
1) The first record of a human wearing a hat was found in a cave drawing in central France, estimated to be 15,000 years old.
2) The first famous milliner was Rose Bertin, who made extravagant headwear creations for Marie Antoinette. She is also considered the world’s first stylist.
3) The term ‘milliner’, first recorded in 1539, is derived from Milan, the origin of quality straw materials for hats.
4) In 1948 people assumed that ‘hatlessness’ was a fad and would soon pass. Why exactly people stopped wearing hats is not known, but generally attributed to changes in hairstyle, wearing sunglasses and the rise in use of cars as transport after WWII.
5) The expression ‘Mad as a Hatter’ stems from the use of mercury in the 18th- and 19th-century hat trade to bind felt fibres. Milliners working with felt would inhale the fluff and after a while the ingestion of mercury would render them insane. Similar symptoms displayed by hatmakers in the Danbury factory in the United States were referred to as ‘the Danbury Shakes’.
6) Panama hats are actually made from straw in Ecuador.
7) The Edwardian trend for overloading hats with feathers – and sometimes whole birds – led to the creation of the Audubon Society for the protection of birds in US, which started a campaign against ‘murderous millinery’ and held talks titled ‘Woman as a bird enemy’.
8) ‘Old hat’ now means something out of date or old-fashioned. However, George Grose defines the term in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue published in 1796 as ‘a woman’s privities, because frequently felt’.