The Symbolism of Hats and Crowns

In various territories around the world it is considered improper to leave the house without covering your head. We tend to put this down to religious beliefs of the area, though it is mostly cultural. People younger than about 60 may not be aware that until quite recently it was impolite in Western countries to appear in public without headgear. No hat, not dressed.

My mother was a child of the 1950s. When we watched Mad Men together she noticed an inaccuracy. Unless America was vastly different from New Zealand, the real world secretaries of Madison Ave would have been wearing hats, even in the office. Don Draper would have also worn a hat more than depicted on the show. He was an old-fashioned guy. Lack of hats on Mad Men was an anachronism, possibly a stylistic choice which allowed the viewer to get a better look at actors’ faces. (For the same reason we rarely see characters on screen wearing sunglasses outside.)

One of the more realistic hat scenes from Mad Men

The painting below demonstrates how, in earlier eras, women’s decorative hats were considered a part of their day wear, not necessarily functional, and therefore worn inside.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Lady Reading by a Window

These days, here in New Zealand and Australia, hats are mainly worn for practical reasons — hard hats on building sites, sun hats under our harsh UV rays. Hats are also worn on certain specific occasions, for example by women to The Melbourne Cup (as fascinators).

But why is headgear so important in many places across most eras?

Hats and Status

Headgear identifies the status of the wearer. Peaked hats in general authority. The witch’s hat is very tall and spiky. The hat supposedly contains the essence of her magical power in the form of a spiral of energy. The medieval Jewish hat and the papal tiara (triregnum) are also tall and spiky. Some believe these are phallic symbols.

A crown means royalty, and is the clearest example of headgear as status symbol: There is literally no reason to wear a crown other than to show off your status. Crowns can be so heavy they would’ve given the wearer a headache.

Crowns are circular and therefore inherit the symbolism of the circle — eternity, immortality and a connection between the spiritual and material world. This is symbolised by the coronation itself.

Jewels are often affixed to a crown. These are expensive and pretty, but also symbolise rays of sun. The wearer becomes one with the ‘illumination’ from above. Read illumination in all senses — someone who wears a crown achieves illumination — greatness, knowledge, power.

The Catholic Pope wears a triple crown. It’s called a triregnum. The three parts symbolise different aspects of the Catholic faith and of their papal role.

Crowns aren’t always made of precious metals and jewels. A crown made of laurels signals victory and carries equivalent status. In Ancient Roman times, the highest accolade for a soldier was to wear a crown of grass. A crown of grass was called a corona graminea. It meant he now owned the territory.

Native Americans traditionally make use of feathers to indicate status. The feathers themselves signify the different qualities of the birds they belong to. The most valuable feather is the eagle feather.

In contrast, beggars take off their hat (‘cap in hand’) in order to collect coins in it, but also to defer. An uppity beggar won’t have much luck.

The top of the head is a sacred part of the body because it’s closest to the heavens, and first contact with spirits who descend from above. In sacred places you take off your shoes but worshippers are likely to cover their heads. Both acts signal modesty and deference.

An excellent example of this belief is the skullcap worn by Orthodox Jews (the yarmulke or kippah). The Torah says no man may walk more than four paces without head covering. The head should always be covered in the presence of God. God is believed to be omnipresent. Many other faiths also require the covering of heads, though mainly in a place of worship.

The paper hat in the role playing game below is important to the scenario. Without a fancy hat it’s difficult to imagine one’s own importance.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot - A Little Nimrod
James Jacques Joseph Tissot – A Little Nimrod

Kate Greenaway was a prolific and pre-eminent English Children’s Book Illustrator throughout the Victorian Era. This is a case in which reality mimics ‘fiction’.

A ‘High End’ London Children’s Clothing Store stocked Kate Greenaway’s designs. These fashion items were copied from her book illustrations. Upper class Victorian mothers adorned their children in Kate Greenaway’s Designs.

Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book (1890)

Hats As Indication Of Civility

When Jon Klassen created his hat series of picture books, he was making use of the idea that when someone puts on a hat, they become better people, emphasis on ‘people’. His characters are animals. When they put on a hat they become more important. Two tortoises both want a hat. A fish steals a hat. A bear can’t find his hat and this is a tragedy.

By putting on hats, humans likewise metamorphose from base, animalistic creatures into civilised human beings.

John Falter (American, 1910-1982) “The Hat Shop” cover illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post” magazine, March 10, 1945

The painting below shocked its turn of the century audience not really because the woman wears no clothes, but because of the combo: She is wearing no clothes EXCEPT a hat. At the time this felt especially shocking, because hats were almost sacred. Hats were a marker of respectability. You’d not leave the house without one. When a naked person wears only a hat, they are thereby emphasising their nakedness. They are more naked than before. In fact, the painting below was so shocking, it wasn’t viewed by the public for another 40 years:

Wilson Steer, one of the most impressionist of British painters, posed his nudes in everyday settings, and here the model is playfully trying on a hat she has found in the studio. Steer did not exhibit this sketch, and it was chosen for the Tate Gallery directly from his studio in 1941, by the then Director Sir John Rothenstein. Steer told him ‘friends told me it was spoiled by the hat; they thought it indecent that a nude should be wearing a hat, so it’s never been shown’.

Gallery label at The Tate, February 2016

Seated Nude: The Black Hat c.1900 Philip Wilson Steer

Removing One’s Hat

This J. C. Leyendecker illustration shows a young man who is clearly deferential to the young woman. His hat in hand and hand on heart show us he is requesting something. Meanwhile, ladies wear hats for fashion purposes and are not expected to remove them.

Header painting: Carlton Alfred Smith – The Hat Makers 1891

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