With the Kentucky Derby a few weeks away and a plethora of garden tours, Titanic memorials, and Victorian tea party events springing up this time of year, I am eager to dust off my vintage hat collection and see what new outfits I can create. The heyday for tea party hats was in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with the latter being the most notable with giant picture hats. The giant hat trend reemerged in the 1940s with oversized sun hats, and flowers were frequently used on 1950s perch hats. The trend for wearing a hat to a tea party has deep roots and many decades of inspiration to choose from.
Since I don’t like to wear the same costume or hat for each event I attend, I like to look at old pictures or illustrations for inspiration, especially during the 1890s-1920s when tea party hats were the most extravagant. For the history of Victorian-era hats, read here.
Edwardian Tea Party Hats
These giant hats were called picture hats or Gainsborough hats. You can read more about them here. Brims were shaped by wire and tall crowns piled high with exotic feathers, big silk flowers, and stiff ribbons. Women’s hair which was usually very long, gathered up high on the head, and stuffed with even more hair and padding. The hats then perched delicately on the head with long, sharp, hat pins to secure them in place. Women had to walk smoothly and make tiny head movements to keep the hat in balance. New activities such as motoring in an open top car proved rather difficult until veils were added both to keep the hat on and reduce the dust blown onto the face. Gradually smaller hats were designed just for motoring and after 1913 hats reduced down both in size and opulence.
While there are plenty of fabulous tea party hat pictures to look at online a new book was recently published that has hundreds of colorized Edwardian postcards, fashion illustrations and antique photos of hats to admire and inspire. Edwardian Ladies Hat Fashion: Where Did You get that Hat? by Peter Kimpton (Amazon USA) was sent to me to review by Pen and Sword Publishing Books. I can never turn down a good book and this one does not disappoint.
Most of the images are from the author’s personal collection of Edwardian postcards. The first half of the book reviews life in the Edwardian era and the fad for giant picture hats. Mr. Kimpton is not a fashion historian so the text is a little lacking in specifics about the hats themselves. However he does spend the second half of the book exploring the industry of bird feathers and its ultimate demise as an inhumane trade. There are many stories from designers, millinery workers, explorers, and the author’s personal hunt for his postcard collection. The book provides a great deal of cultural insight into the fad for these giant hats which is rare to find a fashion history book. I will certainly be using some of these stories in future articles on Edwardian hats. For now, the pictures are enough to give me several new ideas for my next tea party hat creation. Take a look:
If you are attending a tea party and need a fabulous tea hat you have a few choices. Make one or buy one ready made. In either case I find it easier to buy a simple hat in the size and color I want and then add decorations myself. If you want a decorated hat in the Victorian or Edwardian style you will be paying quite a bit for a custom creation. They are beautiful works of art, but not in my budget for a one time use (although I did splurge on one for my wedding.)
Make A Tea Party Hat
Here are some tips on decorating a Victorian tea party hat:
Choose a stiff brim hat for the base. Floppy straw sun hats will give you a lot of grief. Stiff straw and sinamay hats provide enough structure to pile on the decorations. You can soak or spray the hat in liquid starch if you need to stiffen the fabric more. Spray Shelack also works very well just give it a few to days to dry outside.
2. Consider covering your hat in one or multiple fabrics. You can loosely cover and stitch or hot glue fabric around the crown only or crown and brim (don’t forget the underside too.) Look for lace, silk, satin, damask and other fancy fabrics at the thrift store. Old clothes can be torn up for this project and are usually cheaper and better than buying new fabric and craft supplies.
3. Buy fake flowers from the Dollar Tree but soak them in black tea to give them an aged effect. The result is much softer and more antique looking.
5. Use wired ribbon to create large bows and ribbon trim. Use silk, satin, lace or velvet ribbon. Play with it until you make something you like.
6. Attach an entire fake bird to your hat or fake fruit, insects, twigs, leaves and other floral arranging decorations. One year I attached a model horse for a Derby party. Be whimsical.
7. Use a variety of tall feathers. You can buy them from a sport fishing store usually in the fly fishing section. Crafts stores have them too bu they may more expensive. Ostrich plumes are the most dramatic and popular during this era. Peacock, pheasant and turkey feathers also make colorful additions. You can always paint or dye plain feathers into something more interesting.
8. Curl the ends of ostrich plumes with a 1/4 barrel curling iron on low. It is a pretty and very Victorian effect.
9. Buy a quality hat pin. Don’t go cheap here. Hat pins, especially for large heavy hats, should not bend. They should also be quite long- 12 to 15 inches. Or you can use two shorter pins and pin them in from each side. Hats pin the best to gathered hair. Make a bun on top of your head, over several pin curls and arrange your hair nicely around your face. Place the hat on your head and run a hat pin through the bun/pin curl.
Thin hair could be rolled around foam rollers to create something for the pin to stick through. If you have very short hair you may want to wear a wig.
Buy Tea Party Hats
There are many options of ready made Victorian tea party hats for sale online. Some are made with cheaper modern materials and limited decorations. I don’t mind buying them because I usually add some additional decorations. Others are fully decorated by a master milliner. Here are some of my favorite hats sold online by decade: