I’ve been rather fascinated by the word “fascinator” since hearing it used to describe some decorative head pieces – outlandish in some cases -- worn by guests at a certain royal wedding. When I recently saw a photo of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, with a lovely example topping her long dark tresses, curiosity got the better of me and I went hunting for the origin of these hair baubles.
First of all, what is a fascinator? According to Julie Boyne of V is for Vintage, a website I recommend, “A fascinator hat is a small ornamental headpiece that fits on the head using an alice-band-type base or headband or even a small comb. It is always lightweight and usually features feathers, beads or flowers. The [modern] use of the term fascinator began in the 1990s when such headpieces became popular for wearing at weddings without ruining your lovely hairstyle or giving you a helmet head.”
However, the term dates back farther, at least to the late 19th century when it referred to a lace or crocheted head shawl. Secured to the crown or hairline, such delicate fascinators draped over the back of the head to the shoulders or lower, adding a hint of seductive mystery to proper Victorian ladies. By the 1930s, the term meant a lacy hood, but it faded from use soon thereafter, replaced by the small, chic cocktail hat -- bearing a strong resemblance to today’s fascinators.
During the 1960s, small decorative hats much like cocktail hats of the previous two decades were worn in Australia. They were called fascinators. At the same time the beehive hairdo worn by many American women offered a chance to attach all kinds of accents, also precursors of 21st century fascinators.
The history of women’s headwear is an absorbing, sometimes jaw-dropping subject, summarized very well by Ms. Boyne on her informative site. While reading about it I kept wondering how much of the elegant millinery fashions of the 1870s, ‘80s and 90s made it to the western frontier. In many a western romance we read about dressmakers and milliners setting up shop in frontier towns. Were they actually that common? If so, did women’s hat makers find enough customers to earn a living? I mean, I can’t imagine farm and ranch wives, especially the hard scrabble ones, purchasing fancy hats when they could barely afford the basic necessities.
Again turning to the internet, I found this staged photo on dreamstime.com of a saloon girl and a pioneer wife. It kind of makes my point, showing the young wife in a poke bonnet – practical for working in the hot sun on a farm or ranch. I guess that red feather in the cigar smoking saloon hostess’s hair does qualify as a fascinator, and I’ve read that “shady ladies” did dress in a more respectable fashion when not working. Presumably, that would include headwear.
I also learned that millinery truly was a very popular women’s enterprise across America, including the West, in the 19th century. Often, to support themselves or add to their husband’s income, milliners would diversify, combining hat making with dressmaking, a bakery, boardinghouse, etc. In 1873, in Kaluma, Washington Territory, one enterprising woman ran a millinery department in her husband’s men’s clothing store. In Helena, Montana, another woman operated her own branch of her husband’s millinery business in the 1880s, quite successfully it appears.These pioneer ladies were good businesswomen. Something to keep in mind for future novels!
That’s it for this month. If you have a spare moment, I invite you to stop by my remodeled website, where I will soon begin hosting guest authors on my Monday Author Meetup feature. http://lynhorner.com