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The real reason fancy British hats are called “fascinators”

It’s not just because they’re fascinating.

The real reason fancy British hats are called “fascinators”
[Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images]

This weekend, bona fide American princess Meghan Markle will wed Prince Harry, bringing together the crème de la crème of British society. Many of them will be wearing some truly fabulous hats–aka “fascinators.”

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[Photo: Elly_205/iStock]
These artistic creations that attendees of the royal wedding will affix to their skulls weren’t given their tremendously aspirational name simply because they are fascinating, or make the person who wears them worthy of fascination (though that may well be true).

A woman’s crochet fascinator, ca. 1885. [Image: Wiki Commons]
Originally, the word fascinator referred to a lacy piece of fabric women would drape over their heads in Europe in the 1600s, presumably because one had to fasten it (the spelling “fastenator” might have been more appropriate). According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the head shawl was meant to add “seductive mystery” to Victorian fashion. The word popped up in the U.S. in the 1860s, and even had a shout-out in the musical Oklahoma! in 1943–still referring to lacy head wraps. But soon after, the term disappeared from the fashionista’s lexicon.

1860s fascinator, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Image: Wiki Commons]
According to Stephen Jones, a British milliner who has dressed the heads of Rihanna, Janelle Monae, and even Meghan Markle herself, the fascinator was rebranded by the New York-based hatmaker John P. John in the 1960s. John decided to apply the term to then-popular cocktail hats, which were designed to perch atop a lady’s head while still preserving her updo. “In the 1950s, in America, small hats had been called clip-hats or half-hats, but ‘fascinator’ sounds much more alluring,” Jones told Vanity Fair. “It was a marketing ploy by Mr. John that was extremely clever.”

[Photo: Ian Gavan/GP/Getty Images]

Jones and fellow British milliner Philip Tracey, who famously crafted Princess Beatrice’s bow-shaped fascinator from Will and Kate’s wedding in 2011, are credited with popularizing the fascinator over the next several decades. Tracey’s hat for Princess Beatrice is perhaps more famous than the woman who wore it: Google autocompletes a search for her name with “hat.”

Today, the fascinator’s name stays true, in some ways, to its original form, given that fascinators still must be fastened to the head, whether through clips, combs, or headbands. After all, they’re far too cumbersome (and absurd) to balance on someone’s crown all on their own. But it is the second sense of the word–its connotation of allure and high-class frippery–that most accurately describes fascinators’ rise to the top of the global hat hierarchy.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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