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Headwear can be practical, elaborate, or casual.  It can be feathered, furred, or made of straw.  For centuries, in all cultures, people have worn hats for protection from the elements. They were a part of everyday attire in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Yesterday’s hats were necessary for a complete wardrobe. Men sported bowlers, boaters, and fedoras, which varied through the years only slightly from crown to brim. Women’s headwear changed greatly with bonnets, bucket, cloches, turbans, and pill boxes each designed to match fashions, colors, and lifestyles. Hats as accessories began to diminish in importance in the mid-20th century.

Historic photographs illustrate how times have changed. Every so often current fashion briefly reminds us of the absence of this once integral accessory. We still rely on head coverings to protect us from wind, rain, and sun. Cowboys continue to rely on hats made by Stetson. Special times in our lives are symbolized by hats such as graduation mortarboards. Members of organizations show their alliances with hats like the Shrine fez or the Red hat ladies.

Hat made by  Sarah McWilliams

Sarah Pettigrew McWilliams (1872-1958), was a Kansas milliner who, in her late teens, operated her own dressmaking and millinery (hat-making) business in Washington, Kansas.

Born in Illinois to parents who had emigrated from Ireland to the United States, McWilliams grew up on the family farm in Washington County, Kansas.  She helped her mother manage a large household that included seven brothers. Family stories have it that Sarah got tired of pulling off her brothers' boots when they came in from the field and determined to move out on her own.

At that time, producing custom-made clothing and hats for a local clientele was one of the few socially acceptable ways for a woman to make a living. Sarah's business proved successful, but in 1903 she gave up the shop to wed Charles Hawes, a widower and prosperous merchant in nearby Morrowville. Sarah, of course, made the hat she wore for her wedding.

A selection of McWilliams' hats are now in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

Slouch hat Hat from 1888 Benjamin Harrison presidential campaign Panama hat
Slouch Civil War hat, 1891.16.2 Hat from 1888 Benjamin Harrison presidential campaign, 1924.39 Panama hat that belonged to President Harry Truman, 1951.8.0.
Admiral hat Stetson hat Helmet for 1888 Benjamin Harrison campaign
Full dress U.S. Navy bicorn hat, 1961.10.2 Wide-brimmed Stetson hat, 1963.99.4 Helmet worn by a supporter of Benjamin Harrison in 1888, 1966.101
Blue cloche hat Football helmet Woman's hat
A girl's cloche hat worn in the late 1920s made of light blue wool, 1974.54.89.2. Football helmet, 1976.79 Woman's hat with white and black plume feathers, 1977.134.1
Yacht cap Silk jockey cap Tan hat with feather
Yacht cap with Kansas seal, 1977.36.15 Jockey cap that Verna Camien and her father purchased at Bailey's, Inc., in Evanston, Illinois, 1979.63.115. Pettigrew McWilliams' feather hat, 1987.60.5
Sombrero Friends University beanie Hatbox
Sombrero was given to Governor John Carlin, 1987.221.785. Friends University beanie, 1994.50.8 Hatbox from the Innes store in Wichita, 1995.5.1.
Cap with Landon Knox presidential campaign buttons Pettigrew William's hat Pettigrew Williams' hat
Cap with Landon Knox presidential campaign buttons, 1998.32.110 Pettigrew William's hat, 1998.47.6 Pettigrew William's hat, 1998.47.7
Topper hat Nurses hat Woman's blue hat
Toy-size topper, or "doll" hat, worn by a woman in the William Allen White family in Emporia, they became popular during the late 1930s to early 1940s, 2002.60.493. Helen Marie (King) Turner wore this cap as a nurse.  She worked in the profession for 45 years, continuing to wear a cap after the dress code no longer required it because she felt it helped patients quickly identify nurses, 2005.79.6. Hat probably worn by Kathrine Klinkenberg White, 2002.60.486
William Allen White's panama hat Flight helmet Top hat
William Allen White's Panama hat, 2002.60.499 Flyer's helmet worn by an aerial refueling (boom) operator with the Kansas Air National Guard's 190th Air Refueling Wing during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 2004.28.1. Top hat worn by Dr. C.F. Menninger, 2004.76.250.
Beanie Kansas National Guard hat Survivor hat
Beanie worn in Topeka in the 1950s, 2004.87.2. Cap from Fort Riley for a  Kansas Air National Guard unit mobilized in 2004, it was worn daily for six months in Baghdad, 2005.48.2. Danni Boatright of Tonganoxie won $1,000,000 on the reality show Survivor: Guatemala in 2005 and wore this Kansas City Chiefs cowboy hat during the 39-day competition, 2006.43.1.
Hmong hat    
Head covering worn by a Hmong refugee who came to Kansas City during the Vietnam War, 2008.43.5.    

Entry: Hats

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2016

Date Modified: May 2018

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.