The Merry Widow Hat (1907-1914)
“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.
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.
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!