Beyond the decade of their initial hype, when the sheer freshness of a new commodity is enough to generate curiosity, hats, it seems to me, have a hard time surviving.
Take the thin-ribbed cloche, modelled here by ‘20s American actress Constance Bennett in all its eye-hiding, shapely glory. Named after the French for ‘bell’, the dome-like arch quickly became a desired form. Looks like this, pioneering the cloche’s sculpted, bell-shaped fit, were widely imitated during the Jazz Age, prompting a new calibre of sophistication.
A dominant trend in ‘20s film, fiction, and fashion, the trim, comely cloche is one of the key hats we as modern-day failed hat-wearers have let slip.
When Swedish film actress Greta Garbo, a top Hollywood star of the decade, played the part of emotionally wounded woman in her first ‘30s talkie ‘Anna Christie’, sales of the cloche rose prolifically, spurred all the more by the film’s deep sentimental intrigue which Garbo’s lead role, enhanced by the facial concealment of the cloche, performed.
In its prime, the concept of the cloche had huge appeal to couture houses like Lanvin and Molyneaux, who opened ateliers to join milliners in manufacturing hats that precisely matched their clothing designs.
Invented by Caroline Reboux, whose delicate, novel designs are modelled below, the cloche was deemed a fashion-forerunner of the ‘20s ever since Reboux’s first unstructured felt hat launched the decade into a cloche-craze.
Reputably, Reboux was self-invented. As French word has it, she was the fourth child of an impoverished noblewoman and a man of letters, who was orphaned and came to Paris to live. Yet for all its factual questionability, this spirited background demonstrates and epitomises Reboux’s innovative eye, which allowed her to upheave and recreate headgear fashion.
As the style flourished, the notable formality and structure of the cloche were picked up on by Vogue, Surrealist artists, for whom the movement was just beginning, and contemporaneous Art Deco styles alike.
In time, too, the hats even came to shape hairstyles. The Eton crop, worn short and slick here by dancer and actress Louise Brooks, became popular because it was ideal to showcase the cloche’s desirable shape.
The method of cloche-making, too, added to the ingenuity of this thriving new design. Typically, Reboux would create the hat by placing a length of felt on a customer’s head and then cutting and folding it to shape. Frequently in early years hats were left minimal, with any embellishments restricted to flattened ribbons, pleats or loops.
Later, a cloche might be made from sisal or straw, with any number of beads, ribbons, or lace filaments adorning the sculpted lower rim. Up-to-date modes, such as the large-brimmed straws known as Gainsborough hats, began to feature on streets and screens alike, like the mode flaunted by model and vaudeville Leila Hyams, photographed by George Hurrell below.
Additionally, different styles of ribbons were often affixed to the hats to indicate different messages about the wearer. Whereas an arrow-like ribbon would indicate a girl was single but had already given her heart to someone, a flamboyant bow suggested the girl was single and could be approached, while a firm knot signalled marriage.
The fact the cloche enjoyed a second vogue in the ‘60s, spurred by the infiltration of psychedelic colour and print, and is cropping up more and more in modern lines, with Dior creating a collection of cloche-inspired hats in 2008, Angelina Jolie picking up the trend in ‘The Changeling’ the same year and Peppy Miller, lead actress of the 2011 silent French film ‘The Artist’, likewise following suit, proves the cloche is not all gone.
It was Coco Chanel, seen wearing a straw cloche in 1929, who said “once an invention has been revealed, it is destined for anonymity”.
Although artistic earnestness never goes amiss, it strikes me that, sometimes, we should be asking for the opposite. I, for one, would relish the chance to don a sky-blue, low-brimmed cloche just to post that much overdue parcel and pick up that much needed carton of milk without feeling I had forayed my way into a delusional, fictional world, transforming myself into a Havisham-esque eccentric who should be confined to her senseless but definitely not hatless self. When I go, or, more frequently, stray, into a stumbled-upon vintage store and see a hat for sale, my mind flashes back to days when such pieces were a part of classic, ordinary outerwear, fitting seamlessly into the flapper-girl lifestyle of late afternoon teas and dusky evening verandas.
It’s not that hats escape the catwalk, or fall out of vogue, as such. It’s much less than that. The fact hats rarely seem to last, at least with as much profundity, ten or so years after their hyped emergence, is, quite simply, because they no longer feel appropriate to what women do or want.
Hats off, I say, to the hat-wearers amongst us ensuring the values of classic, archived glamour are subtly but surely preserved.
For more fashion and ‘20s looks, check out V&OAK Magazine.
See you next week!
Charlotte Rowland at V&OAK