A Look at Early 20th Century Hats Through the Lens of Downton Abbey

by AbbyFitz

The hats of Downton Abbey tell their own story. Learn why women's hats changed and evolved during the series. Buy your own Downton Abbey inspired hats, and Seasons 1-4 on DVD.

As a hat enthusiast, nothing excites me more than watching the continual fashion parade of hats that bedeck the female cast of Downton Abbey.

Okay. Okay. Hats aren't the only reason I watch the series. The storyline and actors equal and surpass the beauty of the hats.

But it's been interesting to see how headwear fashion changed in just, say, the ten-year time period the series depicts starting from Season 1, in 1912, to Season 4, in 1922.

Throughout these years, hat styles have changed because of women's hairstyles, fashion, and even war.

Big Hats for Big Hair

Downton Abbey Season 1 highlights the beautiful big hats of the Edwarian Era.

Downton Abbey Season 1 opens in April of 1912, which was the peak of the Edwardian Era.

One of the hat styles that were popular at this time was what was called a "Merry Widow hat," which was a round hat, and could be enormously wide.

Why was such a huge hat popular?

It was nearly unheard of at this time for women to wear their hair short, so the vast majority of women had long hair. A mane of thick, healthy hair was considered the ideal beauty asset during this era.

Only young girls wore their hair down, so all that hair had to be piled on top of a lady's head. Hairstyles became wide and full and somewhat poufed around the face.

In those days, a lady wasn't considered fully dressed if she went out in public without a hat on her head. Hats became larger because they had to accommodate the larger hairstyles that was in fashion at the time.

Buy Downton Abbey Season 1 and the Unofficial Guide to Downton Abbey

Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey Season 1 (Original UK Edition)

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Lady Mary from Downton AbbeyThe hat that Lady Mary is wearing is a perfect example of a Merry Widow hat. It's a typical hat we envision as being fashionable during the Edwardian Era. When the Merry Widow first came into vogue in 1907, it was considerably smaller.

Earlier in the century, women's hats and their trimmings were small and understated. However, as the Edwardian Era went on, Britain and America experienced a time of plenty. Following the world's expanding economic growth, women's hats likewise experienced an expansion as well.

Beginning in 1911, hats became wider, often wider than its wearer's shoulders. Merry Widow hats had very low crowns, so the hat would only sit atop a woman's head.

This is when all that beautiful, uncut hair came in handy. In order to secure such a large hat to her head, Lady Mary would have used a large hatpin.

The preferred trim during the early teens was flowers and feathers. Lady Mary's hat is no exception, it is decorated with a bouquet of silk flowers.

Lady Crawley in a Downton Abbey HatLady Crawley's hat is a bit wider and fancier than Lady Mary's hat above. Her hat is adorned with feathers, flowers and fabric bows.

This typical Edwardian style hat silhouette is still in fashion today, albeit in a more modern form.

When looking for an Edwardian inspired hat, be sure to buy a wide hat with a sweeping brim. The appeal of these large brims is your face is framed by your hat, allowing only half of your face to be viewed. It's kind of sexy.

If you're looking for a period correct hat for re-enacting, some hats will already be trimmed with the appropriate trimmings. If not, it's easy to add silk flowers or bows to a plain large brimmed hat.

However, if you want wear a Downton Abbey inspired hat with a modern twist, buy a large brimmed hat but don't go overboard. When the brim is too large, it can be hard to navigate through doorways, or even get in and out of cars.

Keep it simple though. Large flowers and feathers can look tacky if they're not done in a modern way.

When wearing an inspired look from a certain era, it's important that you don't look like an re-enactor.

This is a perfect modernized Downton Abbey-like hat. It's large brimmed, and it is trimmed in feathers and flowers in a more understated way.

The color is also updated. The fuchsia and orange makes this hat fun and funky. It's also available in black and white if you're looking for a more subdued color.

This beautiful yellow hat definitely has the Edwardian width. It's also decorated with equally large flowers and bows, something that any proper Downton lady would approve of.

Buy Downton Abbey Season 2 and its Complete Episode Guide

The Dawn of War Shrinks Women's Hats

In Downton Abbey Season 2, we see the beginnings of the 20's iconic hat: the cloche.

Beginning in 1914, ladies' hats started downsizing. War was on the forefront of everyone's minds, especially in Britain. Gone was the wealth and good times of the early teens.

To wear such an ostentatious hat during World War I could make a lady seem selfish, even unpatriotic. If one of the ladies of Downton Abbey had worn such a hat, it would look to others that they cared more about their appearance than the suffering of soldiers at the Front, such as Matthew and William.

Lady Mary Season 2 Downton Abbey

Hairstyles during the war years became smaller and not as elaborate, which meant that hats didn't have to accommodate women's large hairdos as they had in the past. It was wartime, and simplicity and conservatism were expected from everyone.

In keeping with wartime sensibilities, Lady Mary is wearing a forerunner of what would be the hat that would epitomize the look of the 1920's.

This style of hat became more popular because they took less resources to make than the larger, more ornate hats of previous years. Since it was now fashionable for women to wear their hair close to their head, the crown became deeper and sat further down on the head.

Lady Sybil, Season 2 Downton Abbey

Though it was on its way to being what we now know as the cloche, ladies hats during the teens still had a brim. The most popular look was an asymmetrical or turned up brim.

There was no particular size of a brim that was in fashion during this time period, they were both large and small. It was a matter of a woman's personal taste as to the size.

Lady Sybil is wearing a felt hat that has a smaller brim in front and a larger one in the back, which was very typical during World War I.

This style is really a transition between the earlier sweeping hats of the early teens and the close fitting cloches we see in Downton Abbey Seasons 3 and 4.

At war's end, women were ready to welcome their men back home. The new ideology was a youthful young woman, ready and waiting for her soldier to come back from war.

Hats followed suit. They were intentionally made to look large, in many instances too large, for its wearer. This was in an attempt to make a woman look like a young girl.

Luckily for those who wish to emulate the late teens' style, transitional cloches are easy to come by. Look for hats that fit snug on the head and have an upturned brim.

Hat trimmings are fine, but remember that simplicity was the preferred look of the war years. A bow, brooch, or small flowers are acceptable.


Books About the History of 20th Century Hats


What is a Cloche?


A cloche is a close fitting, bell shaped hat. It was invented by a Parisian designer named Caroline Reboux in the early 1900's. The French word for bell is cloche, which is how it got its name.

Madame Reboux looked to distant lands for her millinery creations. She looked at headdresses from Japan, Turkey, and Russia and took inspiration from them to create a hat style that would define a generation.


Buy Downton Abbey Seasons 3 and 4

Bobbed Hair and Helmets

Downton Abbey Seasons 3 and 4 begins to show the modernization of women's hairstyles and fashion.

The 1920's were a time of liberation for women. A woman could finally vote, have a job, say goodbye to the corset, and be comfortable in her clothes.

Women were also beginning to bob their hair. Up to this point, a woman's hair had always been considered her glory, but women who cut their hair were bucking against more than tradition.

It might seem silly to us now, but during this period some men actually divorced their wives when they chopped off their locks.

Lady Eid

Here, Lady Edith epitomizes the fashionable early 1920's lady.

She's bobbed her hair, and in turn can wear a more fitted cloche. As the years went on, some of these hats became so close fitting that they were often called helmets because they covered the entire head. Towards the end of the decade, the cloche nearly covered a woman's eyes.

As you can see, larger brimmed cloches were still mainstream as well. Again, personal preference played a role in this, but often women wore brims only in the summer months for protection from the sun.

Eventually the brims would go by the wayside and the helmet look was the reigning hat style for the rest of the decade.

After World War I, economies on both sides of the Atlantic boomed. The 1920's were prosperous, and women's fashion began to reflect that.

Hats could once again be ornate. Feathers and flowers became popular hat decorations again. Many cloches, even though they were small and snug, used these trims in abundance.

These are perfect Art Deco inspired hats that still look chic and modern. They have the typical bell shape, and are trimmed with silk bows, flowers, feathers, and rhinestones popular in the early 20's.

More Downton, Please!

Hopefully the women of Downton Abbey will continue to give us a fashion show of beautiful headwear.

As long as Downton Abbey continues production, we will get to see the continual evolution of women's hats. Still in the early 1920's, Downton hasn't gotten to the "Roaring 20's" period of the latter half of the decade. Then we will get to see the most outrageous Art Deco cloche hats.

If the series lasts until the early thirties, hat fashion will change again. The helmet look will be out, and crowns will shrink and slip back to the top of the head to accommodate the change in ladies' hairstyles from a boyish bob to a more fuller, curlier look.

Browse Wizzley's Other Downton Abbey Pages


Updated: 02/16/2014, AbbyFitz
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AbbyFitz on 01/05/2015

Thank you!

AbbyFitz on 04/16/2014

Thank you. They are very pretty. I wish more people wore them

whitemoss on 04/16/2014

Love Downton, love the hats!

AbbyFitz on 12/21/2013

Thank you so much! I really appreciate your comments. I love the series too. You never know what's going to happen next.

Snurre on 12/21/2013

A wonderful tour of hat fashions at Downton! I love the series and I love how well the film is done from the clothes point of view. You prove that :)

AbbyFitz on 12/10/2013

Thank you, Mira mentioned to me in a comment on my why American women should wear hats article that she'd like to read about the history of some hats. I thought this angle would make it more interesting instead of, this is a cloche, blah blah blah.
Thanks for reading!

kimbesa on 12/10/2013

Awesome! I've never been into hats, but the Downton Abbey angle is very interesting!

AbbyFitz on 12/09/2013

I'm glad you like it! Thanks for reading!

VioletteRose on 12/09/2013

The red hat looks so beautiful!

AbbyFitz on 12/07/2013

Thank you! I think people would wear hats more for protection if they were fashionable.

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