A History of Hats

John Batchelor Mending Nets Wearing a "Billy Cock" Hat - Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (undated)

John Batchelor Mending Nets Wearing a “Billy Cock” Hat – Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (undated)

Reviewing Frank Meadow Sutcliffe’s photographs of the people of Whitby put me in mind of Geoff Dyer’s discourse on hats. (1) From his perspective the history of women’s hats in photography is a history of glamour and fashion whereas the history of men’s hats is the history of realism. He believes that the hat personalises otherwise impersonal economic forces. There is much truth in this argument although in Sutcliffe’s photographs of Whitby in the last quarter of the nineteenth century the women’s hats tell us little of the history of glamour or fashion.

The first and most obvious observation is that nearly everyone wears a hat and what a variety of hats, a variety that, as we begin to break the code, describes the economic and social structure of this microcosm of society.

Fishermen are most commonly seen in their sou’westers, the disproportionally wide rear brim that was designed to stop cold rain and sea water finding the gap between collar and neck is sometimes turned forward to shade the eyes on bright days. On shore the ubiquitous sou’wester is swapped for a wide variety of softer headgear; tall “billy-cocks” (see above) looking like a Canadian Mounties’ hat without the wide brim; a sort of soft trilby but worn with the front brim turned up in a rather jaunty fashion; soft black caps that are surely the ancestor of the skipper’s cap favoured by weekend sailors in the 1970s; tam o’shanters and a nearly peak-less guardsman cap that makes the wearer look like an exile from the Russian revolution.

The farmers’ wear softer hats, they battle less with the weather, sporting, what look remarkably like, baseball caps or the type of tweedy hats favoured by fly fishermen; one even boasts an elegant straw hat, more Spain than North Yorkshire. In the market place and at a tennis match we are introduced to the class structure of hats. The fish buyers wear bowlers, as a badge of their calling; the Lord of the Manor’s “bellman” collects the rent in a deer stalker and in the background of the market we can glimpse a top hat or two.

Fishing and farming were not the only industries in Whitby, there was a jet workshop where men and boys worked the hard black lignite found on the beaches in the area and made fashionable by Queen Victoria who only wore jet jewellery when in mourning for the death of Prince Albert. The jet workers appear evenly spilt between bowler hats and the kind of cap my generation wore to school, whether this denotes their status or their sense of style is unclear.

The history of women’s hats in Whitby is certainly not the history of glamour. There is less variety than amongst their menfolk and many cover their heads with a simple scarf but there still some fine examples of long forgotten headgear. The girls collecting mussels on the beaches north of the town appear to wear a cotton version of the sou’wester but it includes a substantial amount of extra material on top which I assume could be released to protect the wearer’s back and shoulder when they carried their baskets back to town or perhaps doubled as a cushion when carrying containers on their heads. In the market amongst a few more fashionable and impractical looking items worn by the shoppers that presumably came down from the town the girls selling vegetables wear a flat, round little number like a Afghanistan mullah’s cap and the farmer’s wives display a fine array of bonnets that apparently contain a code to the wearer’s regional origins.

Only one market girl sports a broad brimmed hat decorated with flowers, the sole concession to glamour in the whole collection.



(1) Dyer, Geoff (2012) The Ongoing Moment (originally published in 2005 by Little and Brown). London: Canongate Books (Kindle Edition)

(2) Shaw, Bill Eglon (1978) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe: A Second Selection. Whitby: The Sutcliffe Gallery

(3) Shaw, Michael ( 1990) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe: A Third Selection. Whitby: The Sutcliffe Gallery

(4) Shaw, Bill Eglon (1974) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe: A Selection. Whitby: The Sutcliffe Gallery

This entry was posted in 1 - Historic Photographic Portraiture, Research & Reflection and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A History of Hats

  1. Catherine says:

    Enjoyed reading this. You’ve made me think of headscarves now and how often women wore them in the 50s. Think of Audrey Hepburn and Princess Margaret.

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