The Merry Widow Hat (1907-1914)

Posted by Christina Stewart April 9, 2014 1 Comment 8538 views

“Who would think he’d be killed, by a little shock like that? Why ‘twas nothing but the bill for my Merry Widow Hat”. During the Edwardian Era, the craze over the Merry Widow hat became an extraordinary cultural event. The highlighted “S” curve silhouette of the female figure, together with the big hair styles of the time, created perfect cultural context for the plumed hat’s popularity. The craze started in 1907 when actress Lily Elsie wore a Lucile created confection of black crinoline banded around the crown with silver and two pink roses nestled under the brim. At the height of its popularity the widths could be up to 18 inches in diameter and topped with all sorts of trimmings including whole stuffed birds.

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow dressed by Lucile, 1907

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

The most photographed women of the Edwardian Era, Lily Elsie, 1907

The hat is named after an operetta The Merry Widow, that opened in London in 1907. It concerns the affairs of a rich widow who’s countrymen try to find her a new husband so that her money does not leave their small nation. Lily Elsie played the widow during the initial production. She became an overnight sensation due to her beauty and charm on stage, but also because of her gorgeous hat. Female audience members went wild over it and demanded to know how they could get one for themselves. Elsie became the most photographed women of the Edwardian Era. Cecil Beaton had a life long infatuation with Elsie after seeing her in the show. He wrote a loving chapter on her in Anthony Curtis’ 1974 book, “The Rise and Fall of the Matinee Idol”, and she inspired his costume designs for the 1964 film My Fair Lady. Beaton’s creations for the “Opening of Ascot” sequence are a direct link to his love of Elsie and the Edwardian Era fashions.

Still image from "My Fair Lady"

Cecil Beaton’s luscious Ascot creations for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady” 1964

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

Hollywood filmed “The Merry Widow” three times and all without the expansive hat. Mae Murry is just left with the feathers in 1925.

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

Jeanette MacDonald with just feathers and Maurice Chevalier in the 1934 version

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

Finally in 1952, Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas give it a go, but sadly Lana’s feather were destined to be trimmed down

Still image from "Hello, Dolly!"

Barbara Streisand as Dolly Levi in Irene Sharaff creations for “Hello, Dolly!” 1969

Still image from "The New York Hat"

Mary Pickford starred in this 1912 film titled “The New York Hat”. The film centers on Pickford’s desire to have a Merry Widow style hat and all the trouble that ensues when she gets it.

The Merry Widow craze wasn’t limited to the United Kingdom. When the American version of the operetta opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City in 1908, the producers thought it would be a great idea to give away a replica Merry Widow hat to every woman who came to see the show. What ensued was what the newspapers dubbed “The Battle of the Hats” when the women stormed the theatre cloak room when there wasn’t enough hats for all the ladies. The fad wasn’t without its satirical side. The magazine “Punch” ran a series of cartoons, postcard companies produced doctored images, and film companies screened one-reelers all based on the overly exaggerated “picture hats” and the trials and tribulations of the “Merry Widowers”. Coco Chanel, who started her career as a milliner, called the hats “birds’ nests” and never designed one. The hat’s popularity started to decline just before the start of the First World War when economy and practicality came back into vogue. The hat’s style was revised in the 1930’s with a romantic nostalgia by Mae West in her films centered around the Gay ‘90s and a trimmed down version of the style re-appeared as an after-dinner hat in 1937. Remember ladies big hair demands a proportionally big hat!

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

Satirical cards about The Merry Widow hat were very popular

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

Satirical cards about The Merry Widow hat were very popular

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

Even Theater management had to address the issue of The Merry Widow hat with Theatre cards

Still image from "The Merry Widow"

Even Theater management had to address the issue of The Merry Widow hat with Theatre cards

Still image from "She Done Him Wrong"

Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong” 1933

Still image from "Belle of the Nineties"

Mae West in “Belle of the Nineties” 1934

 

 

About Christina Stewart

A film archivist by day and a film buff by night. What more needs to be said?

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  1. Pingback New York Hat (1912) | Century Film Project

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