A Brief History of the Cloche Hat
The cloche hat was designed for women in 1908 by a milliner from Paris named Caroline Reboux. The name comes from the French word cloche, meaning bell, and refers to the hat’s rounded, bell-shaped appearance. This appearance was due to the hat’s loose brim, which hung over the woman’s forehead or even her eyes, and its tight-fitting top, like most hats today. Though the cloche hat didn’t take off as a fashion until the 1920s, it ultimately had a tremendous effect on the style of the era, changing everything from hair to social norms to the business practices of large fashion designers.
How Did the Cloche Hat Begin?
Caroline Reboux was already a renowned French designer and milliner when she created the cloche hat. At the height of her success, she operated stores in Paris, London, New York, and Chicago, and her designs were in high demand as part of the birth of haute couture. Her name still stands beside men like Charles Frederick Worth, himself considered haute couture’s father. Reboux’s other contributions to fashion included colored veils on women’s hats and the fad of fashionable hats to be worn at the theater. Reboux herself was a self-made woman, claiming when she came to Paris that she was the youngest daughter of a nobleman who had lost his riches, successfully marketing herself to a growing market of similarly self-made, unaristocratic customers. Given her previous successes, the innovative, interesting-looking cloche hat was easy to market. Reboux’s empire lasted until 1956, and a large collection of her work is still housed at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile (Museum of Fashion and Textiles) in Reboux’s home of Paris.
How Was the Cloche Hat Designed?
Though the cloche hat was initially made only of felt and cut to order on each customer’s head, its growing popularity forced the design to change. As years went on, cloches began to appear in lighter materials like straw or sisal (a fabric derived from the agave plant) for summer wear, these materials being much more breathable than felt, and fancy materials like beads or lace for formal situations, such as dances, cocktail parties, or even particularly liberal weddings, where cloches would be made in white, sometimes with veils, to match the bride’s dress. The cut of the hat lined up neatly with the Art Deco style popular at the time, and that style affected the brim and seams accordingly.
Cloche hats also began to sprout various appliques, ribbons, feathers, jewelry, embroidery, and other accents. These accents could themselves carry messages: different designs of ribbons or knots used to tie them could indicate the wearer’s relationship status and willingness to meet someone new. For example, an arrow-shaped ribbon on the cloche hat indicated that a woman was single, but committed to a man already, while a ribbon tied in a knot indicated that the wearer had already “tied the knot” and was unavailable to others. Flamboyant, brightly colored ribbons were meant to catch the eye, and maybe the romantic attention, of any willing suitors.
How Did the Cloche Hat Influence Fashion?
When the cloche hat took off in the 1920s, it became in vogue for many highly visible women, such as silent film stars like Vilma Bánky, and it is still iconic for the era. The cloche hat was so seminal for the era’s fashion that it even leaked into the hairstyles – a short, slicked-down style called the Eton crop (named for a similar cut that was popular at Eton college) became popular for the way it helped complement and emphasize the shape of the cloche hat. This style, very similar to the way men wore their hair at the time, directly influenced the idea of the pixie cut that is so popular today. The cloche hat also affected the way the fashion industry made clothes. Major fashion houses opened ateliers – from the French atelier, meaning “workshop” – alongside milliners, where the two businesses would work together to design outfits and cloche hats that were perfectly coordinated with each other.
The fashion of the cloche hat itself changed too over the course of its life. Besides the already discussed material innovation and added decoration, it became fashionable in the late 1920s to turn up the brim of the cloche hat, similar to popped collars on jackets and polo shirts today. This change in fashion helped extend the cloche hat’s lifespan all the way until the middle of the 1930s, making it one of the longest-lasting fashion trends of the early 20th century.
Did the Cloche Hat Ever Have a Comeback?
Since its origin in 1908, the cloche hat has had three comebacks in the world of fashion, each time as the cycle of “retro” reached back to the ‘20s; the 1960s, late 1980s, when the designer Patrick Kelly revitalized the design by adding a buttoned brim, and in 2007, when Elle magazine called it the “haute accessory of the moment.” Around that same time, Angelina Jolie made the cloche hat highly visible by wearing it in her 2008 film, Changeling, set in the late 1920s.
A Conclusion of the Cloche Hat
From the 1920s on, then, the cloche hat has had a resurgence every twenty years or so. Despite the fact that hats are no longer an essential item of women’s fashion (or of men’s, either, for that matter), the cloche hat can still be seen today. Even after the resurgence of the cloche hat in the early 21st century, you can still see famous actresses like Angelina Jolie sporting them in films. Despite the cloche hat’s origins as an item of high fashion, it ultimately stretched across social and economic lines and became popular enough to change hairstyles and create its own coded messages in ribbons and knots. While few designs truly stand the test of time, the cloche hat has made an undeniable mark on women’s fashion, and will surely resurface again sometime in the future.