In this article Cheyanne Greig-Andrews explores how hats have become a staple in British wedding guest attire, but will this tradition stand the test of time?
Hold on to your hats, we are about to soar into the world of British wedding guest attire. 70 years ago, my Grandmother left her London home to start a new life in Canada. While still a young woman living in the capital city, she was always dressed like a vintage movie star – wearing perfectly tailored outfits and dainty hats decorated in birdcage netting. Less than a year ago, with an ancestral visa in hand (thank you Grandma Doris!) I retraced her steps and moved, to London.
Coming from an arts background, I managed to quickly land a job in a Marylebone shop creating bespoke headbands, fascinators, and hats like the ones my grandmother used to wear. Being from Canada, the only hats I grew up with were toques, shielding against the ceaseless cold winters. Admittedly, I had never heard of the word millinery before moving here. I quickly realized that most women I assisted in the shop were looking for something special to
wear at an upcoming wedding. This notion of having a personalised work of art perched on one’s head endlessly fascinated me, pun intended.
Although the classic lady’s hat remains an iconic part of British fashion today, and a staple amongst wedding goers, it has not had a linear trajectory. So, where did this traditional form of dress originate and how does it fit into the modern era of weddings? More importantly, how does one decide whether or not to wear a hat?
We don’t know exactly when humans first decided to pop on a hat. However, we can assume they have been around since people learned to protect themselves from the elements. Some classic styles of British hats may offer the wearer a bit of sun protection at most. However, more often they serve virtually no functionality – except perhaps to make you appear a bit taller.
To understand how the tradition of decorative hats came to be, we need to start in the middle ages. This was a time when the Catholic church dominated nearly every aspect of life.
Modesty of dress was essential. For ladies that meant being covered literally from head to toe. Women of the middle ages didn’t have many freedoms, but they certainly got creative within the confines. One particularly popular style of headdress was called the henin. These were enormous coned hats sometimes reaching almost a metre in length. I guess if you are going to be forced to wear a hat, why not make a statement!
Over the centuries, Britain has witnessed hundreds of hat styles come and go. Influence from other countries and advancing millinery techniques were vital to the creation of what is now a quintessentially British attire. Wearing a hat was the rule and the norm up until the 1950s and even into the early 60s. An outfit was simply not considered complete without a hat. Special occasions, like weddings, had women pulling out their best hats or titivating their old shabby one to perfection. Nowadays you wouldn’t wear a classic British hat to the supermarket, but the wedding remains one occasion in which this tradition still extends to any woman who wishes to take part.
Hats, like most elements of fashion, have waves in popularity. By the late 60s and early 70s fashions became less controlled and women moved away from traditional wedding guest attire. According to Annabel Lewis, owner of V V Rouleaux and atelier of custom headdresses: “Well, the 60s everybody started not wearing any knickers or shoes and walking down the Kings Road! It got a bit more casual, and hats become not as popular.” The 70s triggered many of our modern perceptions of fashion as being a form of self-expression and freedom of choice. This new casualness and individuality translated to wedding customs as well.
We can’t talk about British headwear without talking royal family. Without a doubt the royal family has played a key role in ensuring the longevity of this tradition. The 70s lull period didn’t last long as Princess Diana and Prince Charles wed in 1981. Wedding guests appeared in their best garb, and impressive hats to match. This reignited the public’s love for hats and by 1991 we witnessed the arrival of modern millinery masters like Philip Treacy solidifying the modern era of this ageold tradition.
The more recent royal nuptials once again saw women wanting to replicate the hat fashions they saw amongst the regal attendees. Plus, let’s be honest, the guests’ attire at these events is often more intriguing than the bride’s herself – sorry, Kate and Meghan. It’s no surprise that the public would feel inspired and proud when they see the beauty and artistry of this tradition and want to reflect it at the next wedding they attend.
There is another traditional theme often seen with ladies’ hats. Annabel Lewis notes the historical importance of colour matching: “In the old days they would not have thought of going to a wedding with a hat without it being exactly the same colour as their dress.” The Queen is a prime example of this elegant fashion. The colour of her hat always matches her outfit perfectly. Today many women opt for contrasting colours, blends of multiple shades, or matching their hat to accessories instead
of the dress. All of these options look divine, but there is something about the matching hat, perhaps thanks to the Queen, which feels classically British.
Even at a mostly hatless British wedding, there is one guest who is most likely to be seen wearing a headpiece. There is an unspoken rule for the mother of the bride to wear a fabulous hat on her daughter’s big day. Milliner Charlotte Goode excellently speculates why this might be: “I think it is important for the mother of the bride to wear something, because then it’s someone that you look for. Like, who is that, oh it’s the mother of the bride because she looks stunning as well.” Of course, the mother of the bride can choose not to wear a hat if she prefers, but it is a great way to spot her in a crowd!
Not that long ago it was unheard of in England for a wedding to take place outside of a church. Nowadays wedding locations are only limited by your imagination. Naturally the location of the wedding is a major factor when deciding what would be suitable on your head. According to Kate, a bride to be who works in British Heritage: “There’s an old tradition of people wearing Sunday best to church and that would involve wearing hats.” Likewise, if there is an outdoor component where the sun might be shining, then a lovely wide brimmed hat would be appropriate.
Younger wedding guests have recently been seen opting for headbands, instead of an extravagant hat or fascinator. As suggested by Abigail Noronha who worked for four years in a bridal studio: “Headbands are definitely a trend, but I never know how long these things last… the headband is kind of that midway if they don’t want to wear a hat but they still want to wear something nice.” The headband is a great option for wedding guests of any age, they are comfortable and can beautifully finish an outfit. However, if you are looking for impact and artistry then a hat is the way to go.
“Like Sunday roast, the British love a tradition,” says Charlotte Goode, and wearing a hat to a wedding is certainly a fun tradition to have. Hats have served many roles over the years from establishing rank to offering modesty and being a form of artistic expression. Amazingly, the British hat has stood the test of time. I hope to see this tradition continue to thrive as new trends and millinery techniques arise. With all this new insight about British hats I can’t wait to receive my next wedding invite.
A wedding is one occasion where we can play dress-up and wear something we normally wouldn’t. The beauty of our modern era in weddings is the freedom of choice. When deciding how to decorate your head for that next wedding, being comfortable should always come first. That can be going hatless, throwing on a headband, popping on a pillbox hat, clipping in a fascinator, or going for the drama of a wide-brimmed hat. Whichever attire you choose, rest assured that the British hat is a resilient force, and will surely be seen at weddings for centuries to come.
Hats off to you!
You can find more of Cheyanne’s writing at thelondonhippie.com, where she covers topics to help you find inspiration, growth, and wellness while living in The Big Smoke.