A feather in your cap

To celebrate Easter, you are invited to view ten very different feather hats. As well as being associated with weddings and grand functions, the wearing of hats at Easter originated long before the Christian festival.

The first hats worn at this time of year were simple circular headdresses created from flowers and leaves which symbolised the seasons and the coming of spring. In Pagan times, chickens and eggs represented new life and fertility.

    Fanchon bonnet

    This pretty Fanchon bonnet was made around 1865 and is part of the Snowshill hat collection. It is made from satin and silk georgette, lined with lace and decorated with cornflowers, poppies, daisies and ferns of coloured feathers.

    Fanchon is the French word for ‘free’ and this whimsical bonnet was seen as the height of fashion but not necessarily as protective headwear.

    Privy Councillor’s hat

    Sir Winston Churchill wore this ‘cocked hat’ which was part of the state dress for members of the Privy Council to which he was appointed in 1907. It is on show at his former home, Chartwell.

    The Privy Council is one of the oldest functions of the UK Government and is made up of around 500 Privy Councillors who have reached high public office. Members include all the Parliamentary Cabinet, past and present, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the leaders of all the main political parties, Archbishops and several senior judges and public figures. Today the Councillors’ main roll is to advise the Queen. In fact the only time the full council meets is to announce the accession of the heir when a monarch dies, or to proclaim the marriage of a king or queen.

    Hat with ostrich feather

    This brown velvet hat from the Killerton Costume Collection dates to around 1870. In this period the hair was drawn to the back of the head in large styles and the only way to balance a hat on top of hair was to tilt it forward and secure with ribbons tied into a large bow under the chin.

    Similar hats were known as Lamballe bonnets – named after Princesse de Lamballe, a friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was hacked to pieces by a mob during the French Revolution. They were similar to the pill-box hat but more oval in shape.

    Top hat

    A black silk hat decorated with an ostrich feather is in the collection at Arlington Court. It was made by Colwill and Co. a hatting company, who had businesses in Plymouth and Tavistock. It probably dates to around the 1860s.

    The hatting industry reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hat making often involved the use of mercury; unfortunately it was a poison that caused severe side effects such as trembling, fits, aggressiveness, anxiety, depression, etc., which in those days were associated with insanity. This is where the phrase ‘as mad as a hatter’ originated from.

    David Shilling hat

    On display at Killerton is this flamboyant shocking-pink hat made by David Shilling around 1970. His exclusive designer hats are among the most expensive in the world and of such esteem that they are displayed in national and international museum collections.

    David Shilling was born in London in 1956 and started to design hats for his mother, Gertrude, to wear at Ascot when he was only 12 years of age. He describes his hats as ‘less about couture and more about theatre'.

    Bird of paradise feather hat

    Made by Suzanne Ermans, Chausee de Charleroi 7, Brussels, this hat sports a bird of paradise feather which would have swept down over the shoulder. It was worn by Lady Labouchere at the wedding of Prince Albert and Princes Paola in 1959, and is part of the collection of hats at Snowshill Manor.

    Bird of Paradise feathers were highly sought after during the Victorian period. The fashion and greed for larger and more extravagant hats almost caused extinction of the bird, a native of Papua New Guinea. In the 1920s the bird of paradise was given the status of a protected species and a law was passed that prohibited it being exported out of New Guinea.

    In this period hats were so grand they were sometimes adorned with stuffed dead birds. It was not only the new legislation that contributed to the decline of using bird of paradise feathers in hats but the new bobbed hairstyle that suited a smaller, less flamboyant hat.

    Mandarin’s hat

    This Chinese Mandarin’s hat, worn by a court official, can be seen at Snowshill Manor, the home of collector and illustrator, Charles Paget Wade. The custom of indicating the officer’s rank by the colour of the button fixed on to the hat was carried out during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).

    The buttons were made from jewels ranking from the highest to the lowest – ruby, coral, sapphire, lapis lazuli, crystal, glant clan and gold. Officials without a rank did not display a button. Over the years the colour and materials of the buttons varied and eventually coloured glass was substituted for precious gems.

    The peacock feather sweeping down the back of the hat also represented rank depending upon its number of stripes and ‘eyes’.

    Pheasant feathers hat

    In 1908 Parliament introduced the Importation of Plumage Bill which prohibited the importation of the feathers of any bird into the United Kingdom, with the exception of the plumage of African ostriches and eider ducks. The law, however, did not come into force until 1922 by which time smaller hats using few feathers were in fashion. It was considered acceptable to use feathers from domestic birds, geese, ducks, cockerels, pheasants and ostriches.

    Made in 1949, the small compact size of this hat suited the hairstyles of the time and as this hat demonstrates, stunning hats could still be crafted. It is part of the costume collection at Killerton.

    Chinese ceremonial headdress

    You could be mistaken for thinking this is an April fool’s joke – at first sight there appear to be no feathers. However the headdress is adorned at each side with animal masks crafted from inlaid blue kingfisher feathers. Known as Tian Tsui (dotting with kingfishers), this 2,000-year-old art form is the intricate art of laying single hairs from a kingfisher’s wing and gluing them side by side until a cloisonné-like effect is achieved but resulting in a much brighter electric blue than with enamel.

    Tragically the great demand for Tian Tsui led to the extinction of many species of kingfisher. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), luxury items were seen as ‘immoral’ and a large amount of these items were destroyed. The art of Tian Tsui has almost been lost forever resulting in few craftsmen who are skilled enough to repair the remaining items.

    Centuries ago Tian Tsui items were only worn by Chinese empresses but for the last 200 years they have been worn as bridal headwear.

    Busby Plume

    It is thought this Hussar Officer’s busby on view at Cragside, was probably worn by one of the Northumberland Hussars. The regiment was initially known as the Northumberland and Newcastle Volunteer Cavalry when it was formed in 1819. Its main purpose was to deal with the rebellious Northumberland and Durham miners, dockers and keelmen.

    In 1876 the regiment changed its name to the Northumberland (Hussars) Yeomanry Cavalry and was involved in the Boer War in 1900. By the time of the First World War it had been incorporated into the Territorial Army was involved in action in Ypres.

    Today the Regiment is known as the Queen’s Own Yeomanry and has been actively involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.