No one wears fascinators and fancy hats quite like the British royal family.
Ornamental headwear has topped off everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, as well as Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie and, of course, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
We took a deep dive into the world of fantastical headpieces to find out exactly why they’ve become the accessory of choice for royal weddings and where, exactly, they originated. And just to clarify, while both hats and fascinators can be decorative, they aren’t technically the same thing. Hats typically cover the top of the head and have brims and bases, while fascinators are essentially bits of ribbon and fluff that affix to the head with some sort of comb or clip. Hats also have functional aspects (like shielding your face from the sun) while fascinators are mainly decorative.
“Up until the 1950s ladies were very seldom seen without a hat as it was not considered ‘the thing’ for ladies to show their hair in public,” Diana Mather, a senior tutor at The English Manner, told the BBC. But she added, “all that has changed and hats are now reserved for more formal occasions.”
Aside from that, hats and fascinators are just part of British culture.
“When it comes to a special occasion in British society, the special occasion is not complete without a hat,” Hilary Alexander, former fashion director at the Daily Telegraph told ABC News back in 2011, ahead of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s nuptials.
“There has to be a hat. It’s part of the social fabric,” Alexander said.
Marie Galvin of Marie Galvin Fine Millinery, an Irish-born hatmaker based in Boston, recently told Brides that some women choose to wear fascinators to highlight their wealth and social status or to follow British tradition, while others find them to be a lighthearted means of self-expression.
Galvin also noted there’s an unspoken competition for the best fascinator or headpiece, which adds an element of fun.
So where do fascinators come from?
Before decorative fascinators became the go-to accessory for high society, the word described something entirely different. In fashion history, “fascinator” originally referred to a lace or crocheted head shawl that draped down the back of the head.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, this type of fascinator, which was worn in the 19th century, “added a bit of seductive mystery to decorous Victorian fashion.” The headpiece, which was also sometimes called a “cloud,” was generally made of wool. By the 1930s, the word fascinator had evolved to describe a lacy hood, but eventually the term just faded from use, the encyclopedia notes.
The 1940s saw the rise of “doll hats,” a close relative to fascinators as we know them today. Doll hats gained popularity among American and European women, the latter of whom saw the whimsical, oft-ridiculous headpieces as a symbol of defiance against the austerity of Nazi occupation, Allure notes.
Modern fascinators are most strongly linked to the cocktail hats that women wore in the 1950s and 1960s, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Cocktail hats consisted of some sort of decorative element, whether it be feathers or a netted veil, affixed to a comb that could be inserted into a woman’s hair in a way that wouldn’t ruin her hairstyle. Unlike typical structured hats, cocktail hats generally didn’t have brims.
During the 1970s and 1980s, fascinators began popping up among fashion’s elite and on high fashion runways, largely thanks to Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy, both of whom have created fascinators for members of the British royal family. (Remember that outrageous fascinator Princess Beatrice wore for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding? That was the work of Treacy.) Aside from royal weddings, fascinators and decorative hats are also common at horse racing events such as the Royal Ascot and the Kentucky Derby.
Now, it’s only fitting to look back at royal headwear through the years: