Times Leader Staff Writer

Weddings-of the Royal variety-and races-of the Derby variety-seem to push hats to the head of the fashion scene. Paparazzi, spectators and armchair fashionistas gather not to see the ceremony or the race, but the guests and celebrities sporting some serious chapeaux.

Hats have been around since an industrious caveman covered his head with a fur pelt to keep dry. In fact, an archeologist at the University of Illinois discovered that hunter-gatherers were wearing woven hats 27,000 years ago, according to some clay shards and figurines from the (now) Czech Republic. After that, men wore the hats in the family for the most part. They were utilitarian, offering protection from rain, wind, sand, sun and cold. Until the 18th century, women’s head gear was mainly linked to maintaining modesty and discouraging vanity. Veils, scarves and bonnets covered the hair and face. As men’s hats became showier in the wealthy classes, women began adding flowers and ribbons to their bonnets.

After 1700 in Britain, women’s hats became increasingly ornamental. Material was no longer limited to fabric, but they could be made from straw, fur, felt and feathers. In the United States, millineries were usually shops owned by women and carried all types of clothing-related items, similar to the males’ tailor or haberdasher. Women could purchase cloaks, hoods, aprons, shirts, petticoats, ruffles, trims and gowns in addition to custom hats or “the latest” from London or Paris.

During the Civil War and Victorian era (before 1880) most women wore their hair close to their heads with smaller, flatter hats of straw, fur and velvet, decorated with ribbons, flowers or veils. Throughout the Victorian era, though, fashion became more daring. Once mandated by society to be hidden from view, women’s hair became part of the fashion effect. Ladies’ hairdressers piled hair on top of forms and teased it for volume to accommodate larger hats with more ornamentation and to stabilize the resulting weight. Brims became wider, milliners discovered tulle and a new fashion artiste was born: the plummassier.

The plummassier obtained plumage-feathers-from any and every bird available or dictated by royalty, the wealthy classes or fashion to create the perfect, the most outrageous but enviable hats. When feathers weren’t enough, hatters began incorporating actual stuffed birds into their head pieces. By the early 1900’s, governments stepped in to regulate the industry before whole species were wiped out. By World War I, hats were becoming more subdued.

In the 1920’s women began wearing shorter hairstyles, and the cloche (“bell”) hat became the rage. The cloche was worn close to the head and was originally fashioned of felt with little ornamentation. As its popularity grew, it was made from straw and fabric for different seasons, and beads and feathers were added for evening dress. Some of the ornaments were also “signals” to would be suitors. Apparently, a ribbon forming an arrow meant the wearer was dating, but not married yet; a knotted ribbon meant the hat’s owner was married; a bow was considered flirtatious-this girl was available.

After the Great Depression and during World War II, hats became less of a fashion “must.” Women worked in factories where the practicality of keeping one’s hair out of the machinery and the rationing of material goods took precedence. Turbans were popular because hair could be tucked up out of the way during the day, and a brooch or feathers could be attached easily for an evening out.

At this point and into the early 1960’s large stores added their own millinery departments that could coordinate custom hats with the stores’ clothing lines. By the 1970’s the market for hats declined as the hair became the focus. Women wore wigs and teased their hair into beehives or let it drape over their shoulders, held by headbands.

Today most women see hats as a special occasion accessory. The worlds’ most expensive hat was shown at Christie’s in London a few months ago. Crafted by Louis Mariette, three woven platinum “vines” covered in diamonds stretch above and out for the wearer to balance. The sculptural “Chapeau d’ Amour” is valued at $2.7 million and is not for sale.

Many women collect rather than wear. Kay Gray of Barnesville has a bedroom dedicated to her collection of 375 hats that she began 30 years ago. She says she’s always liked hats and used to wear them, but her collection is more about the individual pieces and the fact that she’s “never found two hats that are alike.” She looks at some of them now-like her granddaughter’s first Easter bonnet-and remembers friends and family members who have given them to her.

Fascinated by fascinators? The Belmont County Historical Society’s Victorian Mansion Museum is displaying hats from the 1800’s through the 1970’s until the end of May. Some hats are from the museum archives, and others are from private collections. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Head over heels for hats? The largest hat museum in the United States is in Portland, Oregon, in an old mansion originally owned by a milliner from Russia. There are over 1000 hats in the house which was purchased by another milliner who was not aware of the original owner’s profession.

As an aside, the phrase “mad as a hatter” first appeared in the 19th century. Researchers believe it refers to hat makers’ erratic behavior-mood swings, shaking, irritability-caused by mercury poisoning, mercury, at that time, being used in the hat making process.

Valenti can be reached at gvalenti@timesleaderonline.com.