While hats have always played a role of reflecting social distinction, in the 17th century, dress and headdress were adopted to reflect specific political and religious affiliations. In the beginning of this period, the high and nearly brimless of the Elizabethan period receded as a fashion in favor of the lower, wide brimmed hat. This transition is further reflected in the gradual lowering of the high, stiff Elizabethan collar. The high collar greatly inhibited the wearing of a widely brimmed hat as the brim would impact any time the wearer tilted their head to the side or back.
It has been suggested that this fashion change was influenced by the popular spread of Swedish military dress during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), in which the English soldiers would have had contact with their fellow Swedish Protestants beginning in the 1630s. Swedish military dress suggested a certain fluidity of movement.The blooming pantaloons, blousy, ruffled shirts, floppy turned down boots, and of course the cavalier hat, all reflected a looseness of stature and a military swagger. J. F. Crean describes, "the wide brim of the cavalier's hat almost presupposes beaver felt: its broad brim was based on the shape-holding qualities and resilience peculiar to beaver felt."
Sailors, Captains, Ship owners and other seagoing merchant noblemen were quick to adopt the "cavalier" style hat. The Cavalier hat gets it's name from supporters of King Charles I during the English Civil War, known as cavaliers
These hats featured a wide brim. The swaggering Cavalier hat was conspicuous with broad brim either rolled or cocked and ornamented with long ostrich feathers, known as "weeping plumes." The crown was often encircled with a jeweled necklace or a silk band sewn with gems. A large gold ornament held the plumes. In those days of free sword play, the feathers were placed to the back or left side of the hat, permitting freedom of the sword arm. Furthermore, in court, the hat ornament was often a love token, and the position on the left side signified the heart or love. The decoration has ever since remained on the left side.
Most cavalier hats were made of felt or frieze, but by the 17th Century,with the strong beaver trade in the Americas, meant that the wealthy could afford a fine beaver pelt. The resultant high expense meant that beaver hats were extremely costly and generally worn only by the wealthiest of classes.
What is Felt? Isn't that a modern invention?
Felt is a mass of wool and/or fur. It is not woven, but rather pressed and manipulated in a centuries-old process using hot water and steam to create the strongest, smoothest, lightest, most water-resistant natural fabric known.
Felt has been used for producing headwear for many centuries and is perhaps the oldest textile material. Archaeological evidence shows that from very early on, people had discovered the tendency for fibres to mat together when warm and damp, many years before they learnt how to spin and weave yarn.
To this day there are three varieties of felt used for hat making: wool felt, fur felt and beaver felt. Beaver felt hats date back as far as the 14th Century with the majority of production being based in Holland and Spain. European beaver skins were first sent to Russia to be used as coat trimmings and then re-imported into Holland as used furs would felt more easily. By the early to mid 1600s the beaver's European breeding grounds became exhausted, after which time North America became the main supplier of skins to the trade.
Each manufacturer of felt closely guards their exact felt making process and formula. According to legend, St. Clement (the patron saint of felt hatmakers) discovered felt when, as a wandering monk, he filled his sandals with flax fibers to protect his feet. The moisture and pressure from pounding feet compressed the fibers into a crude, though comfortable felt. Similar legends suggest that Native Americans or ancient Egyptians "discovered" felt by way of fur lined moccasins or camel hair falling into sandals. To the hat industry, whoever was first is not as important as the fact that felt hats function well. They are durable, comfortable, and attractive.
At sea, the wide brim of the cavalier hat could be unwieldly, as a result, the sides and back were pinned up, forming three triangles. Its distinguishing characteristic was a practical one, particularly at sea: the turned-up portions of the brim formed gutters that directed rainwater away from the wearer's face, depositing most of it over his shoulders. Before the invention of specialized rain gear, this was a distinct advantage It first appeared sometime after 1650, and it became popularised, in 1667 when war broke out between France and Spain in the Spanish Netherlands. During the subsequent military struggle, its use spread to the French armies. The style was brought back to France, where its usage spread to the French population and the royal court of King Louis XIV, who made it fashionable throughout Europe, both as a civilian and military wear. By the mid 1700's, the ramshackle privateering fleets of various nations became unified into a single fighting force, and with it rank, order, regulation and common-dress. It was at this time that the National Navies of the world made their appearances, and seamen were organized by rank and file. The casual seaman and fisherman became a member of the merchant marine, and great fighting "ships of the line" were organized into fleets for the defense (and offense) of state. Officers' hats seemed at this time first to have been a tricorne - or three-cornered - hat which was universal wear for gentlemen in the 1700s and beyond. This was often adorned with a cockade and gold lace. Again however, it was a matter of convention rather than Admiralty orders which were responsible for this uniformity.
Although the officers wore tricorns, onboard ship, a common sailor at this time either wore a wide-brimmed hat or a "skull cap". In 1706, a contract with a London clothing merchant to outfit sailors listed: "Leather caps faced with red cotton and lined with black-lined at the rate of one shilling and twopence each". Around the year 1740 sailors were wearing a wide-brimmed hat made out of a tarred sailcloth and from this came the nickname 'tarpaulin' which eventually became 'Jack Tar'.
Thus, the name 'Jack' came to described any sailor. The sailor's pigtail - the longer the better - was also a fashion of the mid-1700s. Many men wore the pigtail up on top of their head, only displaying the full length of it on special occasions such as Sundays.
For a time in the mid-1700s, sailors imitated their officers a little in converting their headgear, at least when ashore, into a tricorne hat by tacking the brim in three places to the crown. This practice was discarded towards the end of the century, with a low-crowned hat with a narrow brim being worn.
In the early 1700s, hat making had begun to thrive in America. Britain responded with the HAT ACT of 1732, which forbade the export of beaver felt hats made in the colonies. Britain forced Americans to buy British-made goods and pay heavy taxes on them. Consequently, Americans paid four times more for cloth and clothing than people in Great Britain, adding to the grievances leading to the American Revolution (1776-1783). The Tricorne soon became an icon of the American Revolution, and symbolized "taxation without representation", and was worn by the fledgling colonial and militia troops and navy.
Around 1795, officers' hats went through a transformation. Gold lace became confined to flag officers in both dress and undress uniforms; captains wore it only in full dress. The three-cornered hats became two-cornered. It was at first worn 'athwartships' by all, but this soon became the prerogative of flag-officers, and others wore the hat fore and aft.
The tricorne quickly declined in use at the end of the 18th century. It evolved into the bicorne, which was widely used by military officers in Europe from the 1790s until World War I, not completely fading out of style until World War II. For enlisted soldiers, the tricorne was replaced by the shako at the turn of the 19th century, which had become the new dominant style of military headgear from 1800 on. As the fashionable hat for civilian men - and the sailor, the tricorne was overtaken by the top hat.
The bicorne or bicorn (two-cornered) or cocked is an archaic form of hat associated with the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Primarily worn by European and American military and naval officers, it is most readily associated with Napoléon Bonaparte. In practice most generals and staff officers of the Napoleonic period wore bicornes, and it survived as a widely worn full-dress headdress until at least 1914.
Descended from the tricorne, the black-coloured bicorne originally had a rather broad brim, with the front and the rear halves turned up and pinned together, forming a semi-circular fan shape; there was usually a cockade in the national colours at the front. Later, the hat became more triangular in shape, its two ends became more pointed, and it was worn with the cockade at the right side. This kind of bicorne eventually became known in the English language as the cocked hat, although to this day it is still known in the French language as the bicorne.
Some forms of bicorne were designed to be folded flat, so that they could be conveniently tucked under the arm when not being worn. A bicorne of this style is also known as a chapeau-bras or chapeau-de-bras.
Admiral Nelson - circa 1798
In the late 18th century Royal Navy officers developed a distinctive uniform comprised (in full dress) of a cocked hat, dark blue coat with white collar and cuffs, and dark blue or white trousers, or breeches. One of the most distinct elements of a naval officers uniform was the cocked hat, and this became particularly popular during the "Napoleonic Wars" in the early part 19th century, and was a part of the British Royal Navy formal dress until 1939. Halfway through the Napoleonic wars the sailors' formal hat - if he had one - was made either of leather or japanned canvas.
The general sailor did not wear cocked hats after 1780, and when worn by officers they were worn athwartships until 1795, and fore-and-aft from that year, at first for only Captains and below. Flag Officers wore cocked hats athwartships until 1825. The cocked hat for the sailor was replaced with a shiny black tarpaulin hat with the name of the ship on a broad black ribbon.
Also known as a bi-corne, the cocked hat is often referred to as a French or "Napoleon Hat", but in actuality it was widely used in navies around the world. The cocked-hat was not only worn by British Admiral, Lord Nelson, but also by captains in the fledgling United States Continental Navy, such as John Paul Jones, as early as 1776.
Captain John Paul Jones,
U.S. Continental Navy (circa 1776)
An important part of the cocked-hat was the cockade. In the 18th century, a cockade was pinned on the side of a man's tricorne or cocked hat, or on his lapel. Women could also wear it on their hat or in their hair. A cockade uses distinctive colors to show the allegiance of its wearer to some political faction, their rank, or as part of a servant's livery.
In pre-revolutionary France, the cockade of the Bourbon dynasty was all white. In the Kingdom of Great Britain a white cockade was worn by those supporting the restoration of a Jacobite monarchy, while in contrast the established Hanoverian monarchy they were trying to overthrow had one that was all black. But elsewhere and at other times there was more variety.
During the 1780 Gordon Riots in London the blue cockade became a symbol of anti-government feelings and was worn by most of the rioters.
As the Continental Army has unfortunately no uniforms, and consequently many inconveniences must arise from not being able to distinguish the commissioned officers from the privates, it is desired that some badge of distinction be immediately provided; for instance that the field officers may have red or pink colored cockades in their hats, the captains yellow or buff, and the subalterns green.
Top Hats, Straw Hats & Bandanas:
By the 1800's sailor's uniforms begain to change, with the development of provincial navies, revenue cutters and the coast guard. Often sailors wore top round hats, painted or left felt, plain or with painted device, either with the ship’s name, or ribbon (“tally”) bearing same in white, gilt or yellow paint/stitching. They also wore what as known as a “tarpot”. A painted canvas low-crown hat, decorated as per top-round hats or left plain, or they would wear wool stocking caps of various colours; Also popular, wwas the fur cap & straw hats, either natural or painted, with “tally” or without; and finally the bandana, knotted at rear, of non-modern design; or bareheaded.
Headgear for the common sailor varied between a simple cloth bandana,which was often tied at the rear to keep sweat out of the eyes, to the straw hat. This was particularly common to those sailors who had been to the West Indies.
By the middle of the 19th century the round top-hat reached universal acceptance, and the crown of the hat became considerably higher, with sailors decorating the crown with badges obtained from various landfalls.
Meanwhile officers, adopted a blue cap with a gold band for use as a less formal hat. Unofficial at first, the new cap in time became general undress headgear, although the black 'top' hat was also occasionally seen.
The cocked hat, which up until middle of 19th century had been worn by warrant officers and midshipmen, was eventually replaced by this tall round black top-hat for both ranks.