The Melbourne Cup Season is now the one time of the year when many Melbourne women are busy choosing between feathers or flowers, ribbons or veiling, a hat of divine elegance or one full of frivolity. For many fashionistas it’s just a fun day, so it’s hard to imagine a time when not wearing a hat to the races was considered a serious breach of decorum, in fact a front-page headline scandal. But scandal was what fresh-faced British supermodel Jean Shrimpton caused in 1965 by attending Derby Day hatless, gloveless, bare-legged and in a simple above-the-knee frock, and thereby bringing to an end the domination of the dowager.
Until the 1960s every man and woman wore a hat every day, not just for special occasions. We wore hats to church on Sundays, when going into “town”, out in the sun, working in the garden. There was a hat for every event. School hats with their badge on the hat band were the identifying feature of the school.
|From the RHSV’s collection of historic newspapers (The Australasian - November 6 1937) come these two photographs of spectators at the Melbourne Cup. The head gear is remarkable.|
Hats were full of symbolic meaning. Men showed respect by raising their hat, or in “Sentimental Bloke talk” by dipping their lid. At funerals men stood at the graveside holding their hats in their hands. One went cap-in-hand to beg for a job or to make an apology. One threw one’s cap into the ring to take a chance, or into the air in happiness, as in the iconic photograph of people celebrating the end of World War II. The Australian Army hat was part of the national image during WWII and was celebrated in song. Some Melbournians will still remember: “Just a brown slouch hat with the side turned up, and it means the world to me!”
Melbourne city was full of hat shops and milliners. The RHSV copy of the Foy and Gibson Catalogue of 1923 shows pages of hats to chose from. During the Depression magazine articles told women how to refurbish an old hat. There were specialist men's hat shops, one of which, City Hatters, remains, just outside the entrance to Flinders Street Station. It sold top-hats, boaters, trilbies and every day hats. Hats told your age, your social class, defined your taste or lack of it, and indicated whether you were up to the mark or down at heel. Doreen, beloved of the “sentimental bloke” wore a hat , but the bloke himself wore a cap.
In 1901 The Argus newspaper covered the opening of Australia’s first Federal Parliament (at Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings). Every woman who attended wore a hat, and The Argus described every single one: Lady Madden wore a small, black-jetted toque; Lady Lygon wore a large hat with feathers; and the Countess of Hopetoun, a black stitched glace hat, with a large paste buckle, long black feather and tulle rosettes. Now those were the days!
If you are wishing to work out the date of an old family photograph, the hats might give the clue. Lenore Frost's book Dating Family Photos (also in the RHSV library) gives examples of how much a hat can tell.
Oaks Day is the one day when we can still hat up. What a lot we have lost by going hatless and fancy free.