Fascinator: history of a hair accessory
A fascinator hat is a small ornamental headpiece that fits on the head using an alice-band-type base or headband or even a small comb. It is always lightweight and usually features feathers, beads or flowers. The use of the term fascinator began in the 1990s when such headpieces became popular for wearing at weddings without ruining your lovely hairstyle or giving you a helmet head.
These days it can be worn for any occasion, but mostly formal. The only purpose of a fascinator is hair decoration. The fascinator always sits at an angle on the head as if perching on top of the well-groomed hair and complementing the look of the hair. A cross between a hair accessory and a cocktail hat, a fascinator with veil is also quite common.
The fascinator as we know it today is adopted in the London (Luton-based) millinery trade during the late 1970s and 80s. However, use of the word ‘fascinator’ has been used in previous centuries to describe a lacy headcovering similar to a shawl but much smaller and lighter.
Let’s go for a ride in my fashion history timeline machine with the dial set to fascinator hats.
History of hair fascinators
The women of almost every civilization throughout history has decorated their hair. Native Americans use feathers. Aztecs would braid hair with strips of coloured cloth. Ancient Egyptians adorned their wigs with gold. In ancient Greece and Rome many women sprinkled hair with gold powder, using fresh flowers or jewels to decorate. In Africa, women in some tribes would decorate hair with bone pins and in others they would use leaves.
At the end of the 13th century, a very popular form of hairstyle was the ‘ramshorn’, using coiled hair around the ears and a centre parting (Princess Leia-style). Jewelled brooches were often included as part of the dressing at the top of the head. For this style, see the Portrait of Battista Sforza from 1465-1466 by Francesca below.
This style of hairstyle was too impractical for anyone other than nobility, as is often the case of any elaborate decoration of the hair up to the 20th Century. Showing off jewels and expensive cloths in the hair was often a sign of status and only the privilege of the wealthy. Sumptuary laws also ensure that only those of a certain wealth can wear the most luxurious of textiles such as silks, satins and velvets.
15th century: elaborate headresses
During the Renaissance period across Europe, hats, hoods, and other headdresses are worn regularly. They may often be adorned with feathers or jewels.
However in Italy, women abandon the veil considerably earlier than in other countries. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Italian women are choosing to decorate their hair with elaborate plaits: pearls, beads brooches and wound ribbons all being used.
16th century: hats and hair decoration
Women are adorning their hats and caps (‘coifs‘) with feathers, jewels and lace. An attifet is worn across Europe. It is a fine lace cap adorned with pearls, lined with a wire frame and pulled into a heart shape around the face. Mary Queen of Scots is a well-known wearer of the attifet (see below).
Also the caul is worn: a net and silk cap which covers tied-up hair and could often be decorated with jewels or something sparkly.
The word ‘milliner’, now a term for a maker of women’s hats, is first recorded in 1529. It is used to name products for which Milan and other northern Italian regions were well-known. These products are ribbons, gloves and straw hats. The haberdashers who imported these highly popular straws were called ‘Milaners’.
Come the end of the 16th Century in Western Europe, ladies who support Catholicism begin to adorn their hair with ostrich feathers, Cavalier-style.
17th Century: ornamental headdress
During this century, the name ‘fascinator’ refers to a very different form of headwear, a lacy veil. This style of headwear appears in Europe during the 1600s and is originally called a ‘cloud’.
At this time in Europe, women tend not to wear hats: perhaps just a practical hood or bonnet for the weather with a ribbon for decoration, or caps with lace trim. Men can also be seen wearing ribbons and pearls for hair decoration. Also women might wear men’s hats with feathers while riding or any sort of outdoor activity.
However in late 17th century, a fashion for the fontange (below right) becomes widespread among nobility. The fashion for this tall headdress begins, as ever, in France. It is also worn often by French woman Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I. It is a wire headdress covered with lace and silk. This headdress grows ever taller as the fashion spreads in Europe.
18th century: hair furniture
The ornamental nature of the fascinator can be seen in the styles of 18th-century Europe. British women dress their elaborate hairstyles with ribbons, feathers, butterflies and jewels and secured to the front or off to the side of the head.
It is during the 1700s that the millinery profession is established, offering plenty of hair decoration options for women. Milliners are mostly women who specialise in the decoration of hair and hats to match a mood or an outfit.
During the reign of Louis XVI, later in the century, some women of the French court and the upper classes embellish their hair with ‘poufs au sentiments': a hairpiece displaying novelty items; ostrich feathers; fruit and jewellery.It is seen as a creative way to wear your mood through strategically-placed decorations and ornaments.
Fashionable women are inspired by the French queen Marie Antoinette’s hair as she attends the coronation of her husband (see below). Some of the more outrageous items placed into the hair include miniature landscape gardens, animals, and the infamous la Belle-Poule, a celebratory model of a famous frigate.
The pouf is constructed using a metal frame stuffed with false hair or wool and intertwined with the hair of the wearer. It would be finished off with powder which covered up the differences in colour and absorbed oil from the pomaded hair. The adornments are then fastened to these poufs.
19th Century: simple hair accessories
Revolutions, wars and global recession discouraged excess. The extreme headdress and the image of extravagance that it gave off becomes old-fashioned.
Fashions begin to filter down to the lower classes in society. However, moderate decorative pieces have always been present with hats of all sizes for the fashionable elite.
Instead, heads show-off with cotton bonnets and caps using feathers, ribbons, shells and cameos rather than status-flaunting jewels.
During the Empire period in the early 1800s hairdressing becomes more simple and follows the Grecian ideal. Hair is unfussy, with closely cropped little curls adorned by a simple touch of feathers or ribbons.
There is a strict courting etiquette in place that enables single ladies to communicate their fancies to men and other women through use of gloves, fans and hair decoration.
Bonnets and veils are more appropriate during the Victorian era (1837 – 1901), with the use of feathers or adornments for social occasions. Again hats of all sizes from the very small to the extravagant are acceptable and choices become more varied.
In Japan, the Geisha look becomes fashionable with ladies adorning their hair with many accessories.
By the mid 1800’s Swiss and Italian straw hats, and their imitations are widely available and they are being decorated with velvet and lace. Large flamboyant hats with feathers and flowers become a fashionable choice for a while. Hair is piled up into elaborate styles and pieces are used to complement and decorate.
Arrangements of flowers, ribbons, netting, lace and beads can also be seen decorating ladies’ hair. Later in the century, a fashion for small ‘doll’ hats perched atop the head is perhaps a precursor to the cocktail hats and fascinators of the 20th Century.
The term ‘fascinator’ appears in America in the 1860s and refers to a light-weight, loosely-knitted or crocheted scarf, or small shawl worn over the head. It is made of wool or lace. The 1943 musical Oklahoma makes reference to this use of the term fascinator at the time.
20th Century fascinators
It’s the Edwardian or Bel Époque era in the early 1900s and feathered hats and fascinators have many embellishments. Fashionable Edwardian ladies sometimes have whole birds, stuffed and mounted onto their hats. Feathers, artificial flowers, waxed satin ribbons and tulle are also used.
World War I (1914 – 1918) sees a decline of fussy adornments as a supportive part of the war effort. Keeping things simple becomes a patriotic statement.
But feathers remain: from appearances at Ascot, Royal events, right throughout World War II and into the 1950s.
During the 1920s, American flappers are wearing headbands to complete the bobbed hair look. They decorate the bands with brooches, jewellery or feathers.
The cocktail hat
By the 1930s, the term ‘fascinator’ applies to a lacy hood cap and soon after the term disappears from use.
Brimless hats also remain popular.
Cocktail hats, however, become the latest thing. It’s the closest in style to a fascinator as we know it now and perhaps the biggest inspiration behind the evolution of the modern fascinator.
Elsa Schiaparelli’s inimitable contribution to witty headwear in the 1930s: surrealist cocktail hats displaying a lobster or single, full-sized shoe.
During World War II, hat materials are not rationed so hats and hair accessories become very popular again. Women use available materials to adorn the hair (feathers, flowers, ribbons) and many women get creative and flamboyant with homemade hair accessories.
After the war, hats lose their popularity – although cocktail hats are still worn on special or formal occasions.
Towards the late 1950s to early 60s the hat is no longer a prominent item in fashion. It starts to take on the image of being old-fashioned and conformist. Once associated with middle aged to elderly fashion, the hat is no longer considered youthful. The decline in popularity of hats helps to encourage hair dressing, with wigs, extentions and fascinators.
In Australia during the 1960s small, decorative hats make an appearance and are called ‘fascinators’. They are similar to the cocktail hats of the 40s and 50s. This can be seen as a revival of the tiny cocktail hat for formal occasions. But with the new coiffed, lacquered hairstyles of the 1960s something less conventional than a hat is happening.
The beehive hairstyle of the 1960s onwards can be seen as a modern version of the pouf. Veils, feathers and beading is added to combs and affixed to the hairstyle offering a decorative accent rather than an out-and-out hat.
The ‘whimsy’ also appears in the USA and UK, introduced by top French couturiers and worn by film stars. A ‘whimsy’ is a draped veiling over the face, gathered together on top of the head and finished with a flower or decorative feature. Other types of whimsy have the same veiling falling over the face, but instead of being caught on top of the head it is attached to a narrow velvet circlet.
Fascinators and cocktail hats fall from fashion after the 1960s and then become more of a fashion statement again in the 1980s. Princess Diana, Grace Jones are wearing fashion hats regularly, for example.
London-based milliners Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy are responsible for the popularity of the fascinator within fashion elite circles (although fascinator as a term was not in use until the 1990s). Jones introduces the world to his fascinator designs as early as the late 1970s, and by the 1980s his Covent Garden salon attracts royal and celebrity clients.
Treacy, becomes famous in 1989 after designing Isabella Blow’s wedding headpiece.
Fascinating in the 1990s
Worn for formal occasions veil fascinators and wedding fascinators become the choice for guests to formalise an outfit. Milliner Laura Whitlock adds whimsical cocktail hats to her line in 1995. Sarah Jessica Parker wears designer fascinators in Sex and the City on TV in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
21st century fascinators
Worn at first on catwalks and then to weddings, formal evening parties and horseracing events around the world. Wedding Fascinators are a fashion alternative to the traditional wedding veil.
The popularity of the fascinator has been increased by royals. Even the Queen wore a fascinator for the wedding of her grandson Peter Phillips.
Kate Middleton (below), Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie have all become prolific fascinator wearers. Philip Treacy designed the much talked about bow-shaped fascinator on Princess Beatrice at Kate Middleton’s wedding to Prince William. She also wore fascinator for a wedding in 2009 that was a stunning swarm of butterflies atop her head.
The modern fascinator is often embellished with crystals, beads, or loops of ribbon, and attaches via a comb or headband. Others have a small, stiff, flat base that can be secured with pins.
At the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, Lady Gaga’s steak fascinator opens the door for an anything goes mentality for headwear. Gaga is also known for incorporating the hair into the fascinator shape and includes such surreal designs as a telephone,
In 2012 Royal Ascot announces that women will have to wear hats, not fascinators, as part of a tightening of the dress code at Royal Ascot’s Royal Enclosure. Perhaps a backlash has begun already. Who knows?
The fascinator is here to stay for a little while at least. In fashion-speak this means it’s going to be a classic accessory.
If you have a fascination for hair or history…or even history of hair, take a look at the history of the bob hairstyle here on V is for Vintage.
BIBLIOGRAPHY and recommended reading
The Complete History of Costume & Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day
Bronwyn Cosgrave (2000) New York: Checkmark Books