19th Century, 20th Century

Terminology: What is a picture hat?

A picture hat is a large, broad-brimmed hat, usually rather elaborately trimmed.

The name is usually said to come from the way the hat frames the face, like a round picture frame, though I’ve also seen it said that it is because they were considered a revival of historical styles, so the wearer looked like a the women in the paintings of Gainsborough or Reynolds.  Perhaps the real truth is slightly more prosaic, and it is simply that they were worn by those who affected the picturesque.

A lady in the type of hat that inspired the 'picture hat', possibly by Vigee le Brun, 1790s

Picture hats became popular in the early 1890s, and remained popular until the early 1910s.

The first known use of the term was in 1887, with the term appearing in the fashion notes of NZ newspapers from 1888, and becoming quite common by 1893.  Early mentions indicate they were also called ‘garden hats.’

Fashion illustration of a leghorn picture hat trimmed with ostrich plumes and tips with crimson roses wreathed under the brim (top). Northern Advocate , 19 August 1893, Page 3

Picture hats were fantastic for piling on the abundant trimmings of the Edwardian mode, and helped to preserve the complexions of their wearers.  Their attributes weren’t quite so much appreciated by theatre goers and those who had to share a small space with those sporting them though.

Camille Clifford in the typical Edwardian picture hat

Apparently picture hats were considered just a little bit extreme and ostentatious, with some fashion columnists calling them ‘awful‘ and turn-of-the-century  newspapers advised that the Royal females wore small hats “and never the so-called picture millinery.”  It wasn’t until 1924 that Queen Mary  ‘provided a sensation‘ by appearing in one.

A MUSLIN PICTURE HAT. Auckland Star, Volume XXXII, Issue 10, 12 January 1901, Page 6

Despite the royal disapproval they were the hat of early 20th century styles, worn by everyone from the frilliest of society girls to the most militant of women’s rights activists.  As we saw a few weeks ago they were popular with  Edwardian brides  and their bridal parties.

Picture hat fashions from The Delineator, 1912

Emiline Pankhurst casting a vote and sporting a very picturesque picture hat

The picture hat only declined in popularity with WWI, when styles became less ornamented, and the untrimmed broad brimmed hats wore with uniforms and tailored suits were not called picture hats.

Perhaps Queen Mary’s adoption of broader headgear helped to make picture hats were popular again at the end of the ’20s, despite the challenge of the small-brimmed cloche.  They were described as a revival of historical styles, and remained popular well into the ’30s.

Interestingly, 1920s fashion columns advised that picture hats were best with longer frocks with flared skirts, and small brimmed hats were best with short skirts.  I wonder if Queen Mary wore a short skirt with her picture hat? 😉

Madge Bellamy in a 1920s picture hat

Despite their origins, and the modern perception of picture hats as frill-laden concoctions, 1930s picture hats were usually quite plain, with just a few trimmings.

A simple picture hat, NZ Evening Post, July 1935

The reign of the picture hat ended with WWII, when rationing and austerity measures saw the end of elaborate hats.  A few brides wore them, perhaps as a symbol of luxury and escapism in the midsts of the war.

There were some attempts at revivals to counterbalance the wide skirts of the New Look dresses after the war, but the day of the picture hat was over (except for that odd hiccup in the 1970s where all the bridesmaids wore big hats).  A few decades later the day of the hat as the prerequisite of the well (or even decently) dressed woman would also be over.

Christian Dior's 'New Look' with a picture hat, 1947


  1. fidelio says

    Queen Mary? With short skirts? Not happening. Apparently, according to memoirs of a lady in waiting, Lady Airlie, she had Lady Airlie shorten her skirts just a bit, as a sort of trial balloon, to see how George V would react. He Did Not Approve, and so she kept hers long, apparently with some regret, since she (supposedly) had nice legs.

    • I rather suspected that didn’t happen! And wasn’t The Countess of Airlie in her 60’s in the 1920s? Rather beyond the short skirt phase?

      • fidelio says

        Queen Mary would have been in her fifties, too. I doubt it was flapper-short, anyway–maybe mid-calf or a bit lower, since all of the pictures you see of Queen Mary up until her death show skirts that are pretty much ankle-length, consistently.

        The story comes from Lady Airlie’s memoirs, or so my sources indicate–but I haven’t gone so far as to track those down and see.

  2. I have now found the cutest possible picture of Madge ever posted on this blog. She makes me smile and want to find and marry her! So unfortunate she is in the condition she is in now… 🙂

    • I couldn’t resist sneaking in a Madge picture, and I’m glad it is being appreciated! 😉 That one doesn’t do it for me as much as her funnier photoshoots though.

  3. Lynne says

    I did enjoy this post! If I could work out how, I would send you a photo (email?) of my Great Aunt Alice taken not long before WWI. She is wearing a wonderful hat!

  4. literaturecollection.comAh, I’m reminded irresistibly of the old O. Henry story, “The Romance of a Busy Broker,” which contains the exasperated line, “It’s 9:45 o’clock and not a single picture hat or piece of pineapple chewing gum has showed up…”

    You yourself might like the O. Henry story “The Purple Dress,” even though the holiday is Thanksgiving, not Christmas:


  5. dawn s says

    I had always heard the automobile is what killed the large picture hat. The large circumference did not fit inside an enclosed car cabin very well. I don’t know why that is is different than an enclosed carriage but that is what I always heard.

  6. Ed Stevenson says

    Great hats!! I remember my sister wearing a plain, daffodil-yellow one to sing at our brother’s wedding in 1957. She also wore a bronze-brown fitted sheath dress and was gorgeous.

  7. Patric' says

    My grandmother was a milliner in the late 1800’s. Grandfather took her courting in a horseless buggy and her huge hat took sail and floated into a pasture. Grandma is quoted as describing the retrieval,”He (Grandpa) jumped over the fence faster than he jumped over the bundling board.”

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