In the first half of the twentieth century, America experienced what might be called the “silly-hats craze.” Maybe it was the influence of the surrealists, who were by then commercialized and nonthreatening. Perhaps it was a spate of postwar frivolity. Or maybe it was just a safe way to act out—still conventional (no one was suggesting you actually go hatless!), but fun, wacky, and full of safely contained “personality plus.”
In this lineup of “Wacky Hats from Gay Paree” you can see the form at its most extreme. A search reveals atomic hats, hats made of lightbulbs, hats that look like flowerpots. Nothing was off-limits, and glossies delighted in featuring examples of millinery whimsy.
But extreme millinery was not confined to the pages of magazines. Midcentury books on entertaining frequently contain instructions for silly-hat parties, and just such an event features in Beverly Cleary’s YA book The Luckiest Girl. The gauche, thirteen-year-old Katie hopes to impress her crush by winning a wacky hats contest. To this end, she constructs a chapeau out of a head of iceberg lettuce and embellishes it with leaves of romaine and curly greens. But after the party, she returns home dejected, her hat wilted; her best friend Pamela has won the competition with a cute straw number featuring a wind-up toy monkey. Katie had not understood that the point was not to be truly wacky, but to nod at wackiness, while keeping your feminine decorum in tact.
My mother cherishes strong memories of a school fair that took place when she was in the first grade. Her own mother, my grandmother, came in as a parent volunteer and manned the crazy-hats booth. “She was so much younger and prettier than the other moms,” said my mother, wistfully. “And then she made this crazy hat out of a wool felt pillbox, with a pipe-cleaner man on popsicle-stick skis, going down the side. I was so proud.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.