History behind the Hat

My name is Kate Robertshaw and I am currently in my second year studying Ancient History at the University of Birmingham which has since fuelled my interest in the study of objects from the distant past. Because of this ambition, I have become active in the Hat Works as a volunteer in their collections.


Having grown up in the Stockport area, I know how much of a staple the Hat Works has become to the local area over the years. The museum itself, operating within Wellington Mill, has brought the history of the place to life and has engaged its visitors with the history of millinery by incorporating a stunning array of different hats, each telling a vibrant story of its own.

I decided to volunteer at the Hat Works as part of its backlog project with the goal of accessioning new objects and processing them onto the collections database. Since I have had limited prior experience of working in collections, I was really excited to have the opportunity to work directly with the hats in the collection.

Wellington Mill, Stockport (2018).

As part of my time here, I was asked to catalogue a group of donations which consisted of five hats. This included issuing object record numbers for each of the hats, labelling them, photographing them, as well as writing brief but concise descriptions about each hat detailing their style, colour, and background about what it was used for. History has always been a subject that was close to my heart and that fascination really came through when studying the hats in question.

From this experience, one of key lessons that I learned was that attention to detail is essential and often that takes a lot of time and effort. In order for some of these hats to go on display, we had to do enough research in order for us to describe the hat in more detail. I learned that this is usually done by collecting as much information from donors as possible about what the hats were used for, where they bought them, who wore them, etc. However, when this information is not available, we can research the style of hat to add to the information that we already have. This is not always possible given the large number of hats that need to be accessioned so I was tasked with finding out more about the hats in my possession. I was fascinated by what I uncovered.

1950s-style blue and pink pillbox hat, part of the Hat Works collections (2018).

One of the hats was heavily inspired by 1950s fashion, a style that I found to be exceptionally striking. This was known as a pillbox hat which, as I found out later, had been rather popular around the early 1960s. It became an iconic symbol of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who was first seen wearing a plain bone wool pillbox hat in 1961 at the inauguration of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.  This particular hat had been designed by Halston, a company that was labelled by Newsweek as the ‘premier fashion designer in America’ which, with Jacqueline Kennedy’s endorsement, soon made the pillbox one of the most popular pieces of head-wear of that decade.

Although the pillbox is normally associated with celebrity attire, often adorned by members of the Royal Family, it was also used with a chin strap by the military, often in ceremonial occasions. Although it is often very simple in style, the pillbox hat could also be decorated at times. It is most commonly adorned with net veils or gemstones to create a more eye-catching piece of attire.

Learning so much about this one hat has made me realise over the course of my time at the Hat Works that, no matter whether it be a statue, a work of art, or a hat, there is always a vibrant and amazing history to be told. One of the main lessons that I am taking away from this experience is that, as part of working in collections, you will often have to dig a little deeper to uncover that history. Though it may be a challenge at times, it always pays off!

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