A young woman from Les Sables D'Olonne, France, wears a towering headpiece with the shapes of roses outlined in white fabric.
What’s in a hat? This seemingly small accessory is often more than just a fashionable extension of an outfit. In addition to providing some welcome flair for a stylish ensemble, the adornment can be an indicator of status or position, a necessary item for survival in tough climates, or a place to store and carry personal items.
Our fascination with hats dates back several millennia. One of the earliest images of the accessory can be found in the tomb of Thebes in Egypt, where people are depicted wearing cone-like straw hats. This rendering isn’t the only instance of ancient headgear, though. Ötzi, a well-preserved 5,300-year-old mummy known as the Iceman, was found fully clothed and wearing a hat made of bear fur with a chinstrap attached.
The accessory’s practical purposes are numerous: warmth, storage, shade from the sun, or protection from the wind, and its place as a fashion statement is just as prominent, like the fascinators women are required to wear to a royal wedding as part of the official dress code.
However, their greatest importance is often cultural. Frequently, a hat communicates more than just a desire to follow a trend—it can serve as an important connection to a specific culture or community.
In the case of Bolivia’s indigenous cholitas, hats have helped a group of people reclaim what was once considered a derogatory term for a devalued identity. The bowler hats they wear with layered skirts used to make them easy targets for discrimination. Now, a younger generation wears the traditional clothing with pride, and their outfits are sparking larger fashion trends that extend beyond the cholita modeling school they have established.
To get a peek at the cultural significance of this important accessory, take a look at these photographs of hat-wearing people around the world from our National Geographic archives.