Fabulous hats of Spring 1940

I just love this ad for hats that appeared in the Evening Post in September 1940.  Isn’t the little bowler with cherries just delicious?


Sadly, C Smiths has long since closed, and though the building still stands it now holds a prosaic collection of shoe stores and pharmacies and a gym, and renovators are gleefully stripping all its Art Deco charm from the interior and replacing it with the corporate colours of whatever the latest chain store to occupy the space are.  The romance of an old department store that once sold fabulous hats is long gone.


  1. I remember shopping in James Smiths when it WAS James Smiths, and it was lovely. Wonderful fabric and haberdashery department. It had an old world feel without being old fashioned which is probably because of the lovely deco feeling of it.
    The C Smith building is where Farmers now is on Cuba Mall. It was a drapers. I wonder what it was like inside, I bet it was way more fun than its current state of cram full of cheap and yet still overpriced tat… *lesigh*

  2. Cherries on a hat! It’s real! It’s the kind of thing you read about in old books, wondering what exactly it looked like. 🙂

  3. Stella says

    I like the “new spring hat”. Wax cherries though… I dunno. Not a fan of wax fruit on hats.

    • Laurel Parker says

      It makes a big difference how good the quality of the fruit is and how they are arranged. I agree – there is nothing tackier than a fruit had badly done. But done well – truly charming.

      I was a milliner who got started after buying the supplies of a milliner who worked from 1900 to 1960. She had everyhing, and I continued to buy early supplies, books and tools, so I’ve seen it all. Although I have seen a a few pices of glass fruit ( grapes, and they were large), cherries were usually spun cotton dipped in a glaze that created a hard shiny shell. They’re still made, though not as convincingly as the old ones, which were better shaped and came with a more natural shading and often a stem would have one that was riper than the other. Now they are usually just a red ball, though sometimes you can find German ones that are a bit better. Victorians and Edwardians sometimes had waxed fruit on their hats, but they too were spun cotton that was dipped in wax a few times to build up a shell. By the 1940’s it would have been the glazed sort only. Speaking of wax fruit, there were flowers too. The wax oange blossoms that were on wedding veils of course ( they brought luck and are still used in some parts of Central America), but also larger flowers. I have some big bouquets of wax flowers from about 1900, and they are made from sheets of paper that was waxed and then stuck together to make thick petals. Any flat petaled flower could be done this way – mine are sweet peas and giant pansies.

      • Laurel Parker says

        cherries could also be made from cloth, and the variety of these is endless. I have a linen handkerchief that has tiny linen ones bobbling on the corner of it. You also see strawberies (popularly sewn to straw basket purses) and grapes ( whole bunches graced Victorian tables).

        • Thank you Laurel – I should get you to write a guest post about millinery one day! Your knowledge and experience are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay beyond mine!

  4. I note that the “new spring hat” is singular…just one, very important, hat…it reminds me of how small the closets in my 1946 house are, how small vintage dressers are, how clothing wardrobe selections used to be small, so each item was IMPORTANT.

    • Laurel Parker says

      archive.orgGood point – one that I think should be mentioned in history classes to give kids an idea of how much has changed.
      A few comments on he above comments from a former milliner:

      A ‘Sprng hat” was often one’s winter hat, made over to ‘freshen’ it, though if possible one had two hats, one for winter and one for spring/summer. These hats were very often made at home by the wearer. She might simply change the trim – cherries, faux birds or velvet flowers for winter and lighter colored flowers for the sunnier months, or she might take the hat apart, steam it into a new shape, and really change it.

      There are a good number of books that were written in the 1940’s for making a hat from scratch, too. “It’s Fun To Make a Hat” is one title you can often find second hand, and Vee Powell wrote several similar ones. Many of them are now available in ebay in reprint ( often in dvd form). Because of shortages, wartime hats were often sewn, and require no specialized skills, but millinery skills are not hard to learn, and tools can be improvised. If you ever want to get serious about making hats, the best book by far, is From The Neck Up by Denise Dreher. It covers home millinery, professional millinery and stage millinery. Most of the new books on the market were written purely for the author to make money and get their own work seen – worthless unless you want to copy someone else’s work. A Complete Course in Millinery is a textbook from 1919 that was written for millinery teachers and can be downloaded here for free:

    • This reminds me of a quote I read recently, by the Czech writer Amálie Kutinová (whose book I posted about this week) – “If you cannot afford a new hat, at least buy a new ribbon for the old one!”

  5. Lynne says

    I like the ‘serenely graceful model for the matron’! I’d wear that hat, if provoked. I like the crispness, and the softening bit of veiling. Good stuff, veiling. Most flattering. Does everyone know the story about Wagner’s aunt, who was so musical that when she came to a five-barred gate, she stopped and sang the spots on her veil?

    I do like forties’ hats – they are big enough not to look like hair ornaments, and small enough for the face to be seen.

    • Isn’t the description just delicious! That one in particular made me smile.

      And I wasn’t familiar with the story of Wagner’s aunt, but how fabulous! Have you heard of Jarbas Agnelli and his ‘birds on a wire’ composition? Steph posted about it a few months back.

      • Lynne says

        No, I didn’t know about the ‘birds on a wire’! How wonderful.

        I particularly liked the ‘uplifted Bretons’! I know what they mean, but I can’t help envisioning the inhabitants of Brittany singing away like a Monty Python skit.

  6. Zach says

    The cherries are okay, but that last one has me–the hat mixed with that face…oh dear, I’m in love. By that look in her eyes, I would say she is too–if only with me.

  7. Every once in a while I yearn for the return of hats to fashion – until I remember how hard it is to find hats which suit me. %-} That said, these hats are gorgeous – and I suspect the “serenely graceful model for the matron” would not look too bad on me either!

    (Hmmm… I’m thinking of doing a “hat month” on my own blog sometime this year – maybe in spring. At the moment I’m busy looking for images of vintage raincoats. 😉

  8. Laurel Parker says

    A couple interesting notes about these hats: The first one is a nod to Victorian hats – this was the first real retro period in fashion. Victorian, Grecian and gladiators were some of the influences of this period. This particular hat in Victorian times would have had a bird in an animated pose on it – represented here by ribbons that stand up as the wings would have. An alternative trim might have been either a crisp flat bow with no cherries (also sometimes done by Victorians and Edwardians) , or butterflies cut from feathers or felt, depending on the season. This hat would have been shown with a dress with a bustle – also a retro Victorian look.

    The third hat represents another major trend in millinery of the period – miniature hats, AKA doll hats. I have some old molds for these. This was an undersized hat that was just for show – no function to it. This one is actually drawn a little too big or is perhaps early in the trend, as these hats were usually about 4″ across, and sometimes small enough to be sewn onto a bobby pin. They probably evolved from some enterprising milliner looking to use up his scraps. I do the same thing, only I make my doll hats for dolls not people. I take them to a large antique doll show once a year. It was not unusual for a milliner to make a hat for a child ‘s doll, or to give her scraps to play with whild waiting with her mother, BTW. Consequently there are some stunning antique doll hats out there. These often held up over time better than human hats did.

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