Since the Ice Ages Mankind has been known to have worn some form of headcovering made from a large variety of materials and for all manner of reasons. One of the first hats to be depicted was found in a tomb painting at Thebes. Throughout early Egyptian, Roman and Greek times the hat was worn as a sign of rank. The first known hat with a brim comes from ancient Greece and was known as the "Pestasos".

From the 14th and 15th centuries hats as we would recognise them began to be worn. During these times hats for men were considered an important fashion item. Women's hats tended to be modelled on the men's styles and it was not until the 16th and 17th centuries that women's headgear began to emerge in its own right. The word "milliner", a maker of women's hats, was first recorded in 1529 when the term referred to products for which northern Italy and especially the area around Milan was well known. The Haberdashers in England who imported these fashionable straw hats were called "Millaners" from which the word "Milliner" eventually derived.

It was this importing of foreign and alleged inferior materials that inspired the 7,000 hatters in the City of London and surrounding areas to petition Queen Elizabeth T to grant them independence from the Guild of Haberdashers and resulted a century later in the incorporation of the Worshipful Company of Feltmakers whose function was to protect the profession of hat making, to nurture young apprentices and to look after those who could no longer work.

It was the availability of straw in the Bedfordshire area that led to the development of the hat industry and plaiting schools throughout the Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire counties. Governments in their times, in order to promote supplementary and alternative industry in agricultural areas, often tried to replicate the plaiting schools in other parts of the United Kingdom, unfortunately without success. By the 17th century the industry of straw hat making was firmly established in the "Beds, Bucks. and Herts" area. In 1689 when the straw hat makers were petitioning against a Bill to encourage the wearing of woollen headwear there were already over 14000 people in the Luton and Dunstable area alone living solely by making straw hats. Further in the North of England the centre of the Gentleman's felt and cloth hat industry thrived.

In the middle of the 18th century it was fashionable for rich ladies to dress as country girls. A wide brimmed straw hat completed the look. At the end of the century the waistline rose and the poke bonnet evolved.

By the middle of the 19th century, whilst close fitting styles ornamented with lace and flowers were fashionable for the ladies, Mr William Bowler was busy developing a new style of hat for the gamekeepers of William Coke TT, later the Earl of Leicester. The resulting hard felt hat became synonymous with British Hat Heritage known as simply the "Bowler Hat". In the 1870s and 80s the small bonnet and larger hats carried a wealth of elaborate feather decorations with design influences from London and Paris. Towards the end of the century simple straw boaters started to be worn by men and women for casual wear. With the recent introduction of the sewing machine Luton was most suited to meet the unrivalled demands for this mass-produced hat. So much so that the "cottage industry" graduated to the centralisation of the factory. With this new factory environment and subsequent costs the Luton hat makers needed to make hats consistently throughout the year and so consequently began their production of their Autumn range, namely the felt hat. With the close proximity to the fashion centre of London the manufacturers in Luton were able to keep a close eye on the ever changing modes of style and evolved into the production centre of ladies fashion and occasion hats that it is famous for today.

Hats reached their zenith in the Edwardian period with very large brims and broad crowns. By the mid 1920's with women's hair becoming shorter the cloche, or "bell", hat evolved. By the early 1930's the look was softly feminine; hats were often shallow crowned with a small elegant brim and were worn at an angle.

During the Second World War it was hard to find fabrics from which to make hats. Turbans were made from pre-war materials. Old hats changed their appearance by having their trimmings changed.

In the 1960s the hat took a back seat to the new hairdressing trends and the fashion for both men and women was to dress more casually. With the exception to the beret the formal hat became the inevitable fashion casualty. In the 1980s and 90s, however, there was a revival of interest in women's millinery. This came about, to a large extent, by public figures, notably the late Princess of Wales enthusiasm for wearing hats. As a result of this, many new hat designers and milliners emerged across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and the last decade became a very innovative and diverse period for the British Hat Industry which continues to this day.

   
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