The Wide Brim Hat

The question of the the wide brim hat usually comes up each year as spring approaches. The wide brim is desirable to modern sensibilities with our awareness of skin care and eye sensitivity to the sun. I get it. I am pale skinned, burn easily, and get unpleasant responses to being in the sun.

The wide brim hat, that with a brim nearly as wide as the diameter of the crown, has a very practical place in the 1850s and 1860s. I previously addressed this in my visual guide to common hats of the Civil War Years.

common 4

Prior to the war, the wide brim hat was a fashionable hat suited for morning promenade and other casual, social situations. But, we must recognize that even before the war, even as a fashionable hat, the wide brim hat was first and foremost recognized as a garden hat. Here in the Godey’s 1858 “Novelties for July” we see the first two hats being called garden hats. The third hat is called a riding-hat. (Though, I theorize this is not a riding hat as we typically think, a hat for riding a horse, but for riding leisurely in a carriage. This hat departs from all period sensibilities for wearing while riding a horse, including being dangerous in terms of eyesight.)

1858 Godeys July Garden Hats

“Figs. 3 and 4—Garden hats for the morning promenade. Fig. 3, white split straw, with narrow blonde fall, and wreath of daisies around the crown. Fig. 4, tea-colored Leghorn with white plume.  Fig. 5. Riding-hat, small crown and brim, tea-colored Dunstable straw; flowing white plume.”

July 1861 Garden hatWide wide brim hats all but disappear from fashion columns after the start of the Civil War.  A single appearance in the 1861 Godey’s occurs in July with this “Brown Leghorn hat, trimmed with a very full brown feather of black velvet ribbon.” In this case, the brim still is not as wide as the previous decade’s wide brims.

1863 Godeys April Garden hatI don’t want you get to excited about the idea of wearing a late 1850’s wide brim hat as a fashionable garden hat though. The fashionable garden hats in the 1861-64 Godey’s  are not as wide as their predecessors. The “April Novelties”  in 1863 shows us “A garden hat, made of muslin, or barege and ribbons.” This brim is not very wide, despite its layers of fluffy ruffles. This is far from a laboring garden hat. At best, it is a “strolling as I clip a few buds” garden hat.

In photographs, we see wide brim hats worn or held in very specific situations:

  • Gardens
  • Sea side (please click through to see examples)
  • Watercure resorts
  • Occasionally picnics

The key to note about these situations: They are each recreational in nature.

Wide brim hats are not seen frequently enough in photographs depicting shopping, town, visiting, or church situations to justify their wear in these situations. Interestingly enough, sunbonnets are seen more frequently, far more frequently in these situations than a wide brim hat.

There is a particular CDV that people like to send me pleading for her wide brim hat. Well, I’ve got a thing about this image. Sure the hat is lovely with it straw that is photographing as a color, not natural. But, something just isn’t right about it for me. It is the hair that just isn’t working for me. I would really like to see the back of the image to see who this is and if she is a performer or such. (Btw, I found something rather interesting about this photo.)

Still need something to wear and protect yourself from the sun? The sunbonnet is the easiest and usually most cost effective direction to go. Personally, I prefer a corded sunbonnet in an open weave or light weight fabric. There are still fashionable hats with moderate brims that can provide some sun protection. The Chapeau Cloche is an excellent example with its moderately wide brim that curves down. I have clients who love wearing this hat. I also find veils to be helpful for eyes sensitive to the sun, though not for UV protection. Check out my veil comparison.

*** Do keep in mind if you choose a garden hat that these brims also had shape. Take a look: The Shape of the Straw Fashion Bonnet.


 I would define a fashionable garden hat as on you would were for leisure, strolling through the garden, sitting in the garden, snipping a few rose buds. 

A gardening hat would be a utility garment. Looking at photos of those labouring outside, this frequently was a sunbonnet. 

Previous posts discussing hats in context:

Published in: on February 24, 2018 at 3:53 pm  Comments (2)  

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I did look at the 2 studio shots, but the shawls aren’t the same. Close, as both could be the same print, but the trims are different. Again, close, but one is crocheted and the other is a knotted fringe. And I don’t really see a photographer spending the needed time with needle and thread to change the trim ;-)!

  2. I’ll take a closer look at the fringe in the morning. If they are different, as you see, that opens a whole other set of questions for me on the shawls in regards to NY production and something particular a friend has been looking for.
    Thanks for commenting with what you see.

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