REIGN of ROCOCO
During the 1730s, Rococo styles began to infiltrate the houses and wardrobes of the wealthy. Gone were the linear, geometric, and perhaps more sensible features of Style Louis XIV (also known as French Classicism), where symmetry and regularity were key. A disregard for this more regimented look brought in the Rococo style, characterised by its elaborate, and eye-catching appeal. Trickling down from the royal court through to the salons and cafes frequented by the Paris elite, the ornamental baroque style was enthusiastically embraced. Rococo defined excess. Mirrored in the eccentric, excessive hats of the time, designs utilised motifs from nature and Japanese culture as inspiration.
DUCHESS of DEVONSHIRE, GEORGIANA CAVENDISH
A dedicated trailblazer of this flamboyant style was Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Cavendish, wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. Catapulted into the public eye following her marriage at the tender age of 17, she was instantly loved and admired by vast swathes of the aristocracy for her intelligence and beauty. As a prominent socialite, trendsetter, and author, Georgiana was an icon of her time, influencing how women saw hats and constantly seeking to push the boundaries of convention.
A FEATHER OBSESSION
One of her most eye-catching penchants was feathers. Hard to come by in England, feathers soon became highly sought after. Georgiana introduced the ostrich feather into fashionable society, always attempting to sport a design even bigger and better than the last, and reaching heights never seen before – one piece towered up to 1.2 metres tall! Georgiana also managed to impress her close friend – and controversial fashion icon of the time – Marie Antoinette, on a visit to Versailles with a feather trim white hat. Thus, a craze was born, fondly referred to as ‘Chapeau à la Devonshire’, and spread rapidly across France in the 1780s.
A figurehead of Rococo fashion, it would be impossible not to acknowledge the delicately detailed and art-worthy hair towers modelled by Georgiana – something at which she excelled. Known for nautical scenes depicting ships voyaging through her sea of curls, the look was often completed with sailors falling overboard. Sporting recreational or rural scenes that showcased realistic elements, from miniature wooden lambs to taxidermied creatures, the hair tower became almost the very definition of Rococo style, allowing unbound creativity.
Georgiana’s approval was enough to make any artist, designer, or hat the most revered and coveted amongst the upper-class elites of society; this has helped her to retain her status as one of the most iconic Georgian women in fashion and, to this day, she remains a symbol of the Rococo style in all its flamboyance and excess. In her obituary it was stated that, ‘for no less than 33 years, we have seen her regarded as the model of fashion’, demonstrating her ability to inspire the nation with gregarious hats through influence alone.
THE PRESSURE of FASHION
Almost 100 years after Georgiana, post-French revolution, France had managed to maintain its status as the fashion capital, its royal court admired around Europe and looked to for direction. Such a reputation undoubtedly generated pressure for those vying for a place at the top of society – chief amongst these was Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon, whom she wed in 1849.
Mocked by her husband for her simple tastes and fearfully anticipating the scrutiny she would soon be subject to, Eugenie knew she would have to use fashion to her advantage. Learning from the pitfalls of her predecessor, Marie Antoinette, she was conscious to avoid falling victim to fashion, instead strategically utilising it to reclaim the power of the Bonaparte dynasty.
Intentionally refraining from referring to France’s troublesome political past, Eugenie instead focused on the new, popularising new colours such as ‘Empress Blue’, different hair styles, and the very structure of the fashion industry itself. She was a loyal patron of the establishment of Haute Couture, alongside Charles Worth.
THE EUGENIE HAT
Perhaps the most disputed hat worn and popularised by Eugenie would be a creation designed specifically for her, worn tilted over one side of the face. Commonly made of felt or leather and adorned with a plume of feathers and ribbons, commentators initially deemed the hat as ‘hideous’, claiming it was only suited to those very few women blessed with the delicate bone structure required for such a shape. Nevertheless, the style was immediately popularised, becoming a trend across Europe through the 1850s and 60s. Tirelessly copied, it was adapted into straw, taffeta, and grosgrain. The hat truly dominated the decades that followed its creation, once again thrust into the spotlight in the 1930s by critically acclaimed actress, Greta Garbo, a re-emergence that succeeded in demonstrating Eugenie’s role as a patron of future fashion – an influence that has reverberated across the entirety of the 20th Century.
These daring women employed fashion to not only to emphasise and highlight status, but as a tool of their feminine power, each woman exerting their own influence over fashion trends. Both purveyors of the trend employed a futuristic edge in their designs, desiring to reach new heights, inspire original styles and designs, and cultivate fresh attitudes with their novel accoutrements. Georgiana and Eugenie, both controversial yet simultaneously adored in their time, have had a long-lasting effect on the face of fashion, shaping how we view hats today and solidifying them as essential wear for formal occasions.