12 Hats from Art History Fit for the Royal Wedding

Alexxa Gotthardt
May 18, 2018 4:55PM
Charles Pachter
"Decisions Decisions" Lithograph, 2013

Millions of viewers across the globe are predicted to tune in for tomorrow’s royal wedding, between American actress Meghan Markle and Prince Henry of Wales, otherwise known as Prince Harry. Some will watch for a glimpse of Markle’s much-anticipated gown; others to coo at three-year-old Princess Charlotte’s antics, or to muse at the monarchy’s extravagance.  

And then, there’s the group of us who will be on the lookout for fascinators: those extravagant, baffling hats that top the heads of ladies and the occasional gentleman at many a British wedding. Remember the wildly flamboyant accessory Princess Beatrice wore to William and Kate’s nuptials? It resembled a spiraling, Rococo architectural detail. Beside her, her sister Princess Eugenie (who will have her own royal wedding this October) donned a blue boat-shaped hat that bursted with a giant purple rose and a spray of feathers. Both pieces were designed by Philip Treacy, the Irish milliner who is a favorite among the royals and socialites alike.

Fascinators, as we know them today, came onto the sartorial scene in the 1960s thanks to an American milliner named John P. John, who decorated his clients’ beehive updos with bits of fabric and other frippery. The style drew from miniature hats of decades past, like European doll hats from the 1940s, which perched jauntily on various parts of the head and were donned as a means of resisting the period of austerity that resulted from Nazi occupation.

Through the ages, hats have held countless functions, whether for protection or decoration. They’ve also been used to signify status, resistance, cultural identity, and celebration—all of which have been documented throughout art history. Below, we bring you 12 hats found in paintings and photographs from the Renaissance to the 1960s that represent both daily life and jubilant occasions. And, in our opinion, they are all fit for a royal wedding.


Piero Della Francesca, Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, ca. 1474

Italian Renaissance master Piero Della Francesca is known for both his intricate religious frescoes and detailed portraits. Here, he depicts two of his patrons, the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, in everyday finery typical of the Renaissance elite. Shown as silhouettes from the bust up, the couple’s heads—and especially, their elaborate hair accessories—become the painting’s focal point. For her part, Battista Sforza’s coiffe (rolled braids were in vogue, at the time) is decorated with ribbons, a gauzy veil, and a headband decked with an immense jewel. Federico da Montefeltro, on the other hand, wears a more understated, beret-crowned hat, likely made of felt or velvet, in line with trends of the era.

Bartolomeo Veneto, St Catherine Crowned, ca. 1520

Informed by Leonardo da Vinci’s portraiture, Italian painter Bartolomeo Veneto presented both his contemporaries and celebrated religious figures in extravagant finery. Here, Veneto depicts St. Catherine in a delicate crown of flowers, connected to a diaphanous veil. The headdress has been said to represent the saint’s union with Jesus Christ—in other words, her virginity.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, The Vicomtesse de Vaudreuil, 1785

A favorite portraitist of Marie Antoinette and the French aristocracy of the 18th century, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun painted this interpretation of Victoire-Pauline de Riquet de Carama, or the Vicomtesse de Vaudreuil. The artist emphasized both her sitter’s refinement and intellect with the inclusion of choice details: a fashionable straw hat (worn at an angle in accordance with 18th-century trends) and a book she holds, with her finger marking her place. Historically, this gesture was reserved for portraits of men, but Le Brun began using it to convey the influential role of women in the French enlightenment.

Katsushika Hokusai, Becoming a Young Woman, ca. 1820

During the Edo period, Katsushika Hokusai revolutionized the art of Japanese woodblock printing, or ukiyo-e, by veering away from the medium’s traditional subject matter: Kabuki actors. By incorporating moments from nature and everyday life in his work, he provided a more robust picture of Japanese culture during his lifetime. Here, he depicts a young woman in the era’s fashions, including robes and elaborate wooden hair accessories, known as kanzashi, decorated with a crown of red flowers.

Henri Matisse, Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat), 1905

This vibrant canvas, a portrait of Henri Matisse’s wife Amélie, effectively launched Fauvism when it was exhibited at the famed exhibition Salon d’Automne. It’s bold, sketchy strokes and vivid, seemingly arbitrary colors scandalized the Parisian art establishment and paved the way for other modern art movements which increasingly jettisoned realism. These stylistic choices are on full view in the subject’s hat, which is constructed from a kaleidoscopic mix of blue, green, scarlet red, and deep yellow passages of paint. Supposedly, Amélie was actually wearing all black when she sat for her husband.

Baya, Femme robe jaune cheveux bleus, 1947

Algerian artist Baya was only 16 when she painted this canvas of a strong, bold, flamboyantly dressed woman. Baya would continue to develop this motif over the course of her life, in paintings that only depicted women (never men), and imagined a world in which they were independent and free of male domination. This was a radical choice in the mid-20th century art world. Baya drove home her reverence of women and their power by crowning many of her subjects, like this one, with elaborate headdresses resembling crowns fit for queens and goddesses.

Frida Kahlo, Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana), 1943

In one of Frida Kahlo’s most recognizable self-portraits, completed three years after her divorce from fellow artist Diego Rivera, she depicts herself in traditional Tehuana wedding garb, complete with a circular, lace veil that wreaths her face. The portrait is a meditation on love, codependency, and, in particular, her tempestuous relationship with Rivera. Like the veil, their on-again, off-again affair offered both protection and allure, but could also be constricting.

René Magritte, La Décalcomanie, 1966

Bowler hats crop up over 50 times across René Magritte’s Surrealist, charmingly puzzling paintings. The artist used the sartorial detail to signify the generic, bourgeois man. He harnessed the existential quandaries around identity and legacy by presenting the hat on faceless, bodiless men. These days, thanks to Magritte, however, the bowler hat is anything but ordinary, referencing Surrealism and its exploration of dreams and the subconscious.

Leonora Carrington
La virgen de las naranjas
Pablo Goebel Fine Arts

Leonora Carrington, La virgen de las naranjas

Instead of the femme-enfant, or woman-child, that male Surrealists often depicted in their work, Leonora Carrington placed powerful, magical, free-thinking adult women at the center of her paintings—and the art movement’s discourse. Here, she presents her subject as a mystical goddess whose body is inextricably connected to nature. Her cloak is a patchwork of leaves, while her hat resembles a ripe, brilliantly red piece of fruit.

Seydou Keïta, Sans titre (13132), ca. 1950

Seydou Keïta is known for his intimate, staged portraits of his community in Mali’s capital city of Bamako, where he lived and worked. He once said that his goal was to capture the “best possible image of each person,” and the resulting images often present his sitters in their favorite or finest outfits, surrounded by meaningful objects. “The clothes, accessories, and objects give a personal, and even intimate, dimension to the portraits,” art critic Julie Crenn has written. “They account for a personality, a group, who they are and how they want to be seen.” Here, the woman’s adorned hat tops off an elaborate outfit that conveys self-confidence.

Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli, Shoe Hat, 1937–38. Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli, Shoe Hat, 1937–38

Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí reimagined everyday objects and their traditional functions in order to engage the human subconscious. In a 1933 photo of his wife, Gala, Dalí presented her wearing a shoe on her head as a chic toque. Together, Dalí and famed fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli realized the hat from the photograph as an charmingly outlandish, albeit buyable, accessory in her winter 1937–38 collection.

Bert Stern, Jean Shrimpton, 1963

Bert Stern was a favorite fashion photographer of the swinging 1960s, and Jean Shrimpton a model that regularly graced the pages of Vogue. Here, the duo joined forces for a feature that shows Shrimpton shot straight-on, ensconced in an ambrosial flower crown that tumbles bountifully down her hair and onto her collarbone.

Alexxa Gotthardt