Over Your Head ? The Etiquette of hat-wearing at Society Events is confusing. Lady Laura Cathcart explains the Rules
Sunday Times Style, 1st June, 2014
Should a girl inwardly sigh if a man fails to remove his top hat (one prays it is at least silk) once he ushers her inside the Grandstand lift at Royal Ascot? Or what if he fails to “doff” his hat to say the briefest “hello” on encountering an ex-fiancée on the Prince’s Lawn at the Derby meeting? Is he being deliberately rude, or is he just socially ignorant?
As a society milliner whose creations are stocked in Fortnum & Mason, I’m often asked by socially sophisticated English girls (and well-educated men, for that matter) about the social codes of hat-wearing. Most don’t have a clue. They think that it’s enough to know that it’s “hats off indoors for men” and “hats on indoors for ladies”. But the etiquette is not as simple as that. The summer social season — Royal Ascot, the Derby, weddings and christenings — is fast approaching, and so anxiety amid the moneyed ranks is reaching tipping point, especially among upper-class English girls and their peacock-strutting City-type companions from Fulham and Chelsea — who are often the worst offenders.
Where is Nancy Mitford when you need her to help set people at ease about such rules? When guests are invited pheasant shooting for the first time, even the most socially inept are told by their hosts that you don’t swing “down the line” and that you tip the keeper. But no such advice is handed out when it comes to wearing hats in public.
Having recently got married myself at a traditional wedding where there was no excuse for not wearing a hat, I remain bemused at the levels of ignorance (or is it indifference?) when it comes to contemporary hat manners. The answer, according to Julian Fellowes, the Downton Abbey creator who is also an authority on millinery etiquette, is that, for women, taking off one’s hat inside at any time is simply wrong. “I can’t speak for fashions in other countries,” he says, “but an English lady never takes off her hat inside at any time other than in her bedroom.”
And, what does one do if the mother of the bride removes her hat inside at a wedding breakfast? Ignore her. Mothers of the bride should know better, and set an example by having their hat clamped to their head all day.
Kissing while wearing a hat is another tricky area. At a charity cricket lunch last summer, I found myself sitting next to the former English captain David Gower. When he learnt I was a bespoke milliner, all he wanted to know was whether I could create a hat that allowed two people to politely exchange kisses on each cheek. “Can you make a hat that has extending lips that you can squeeze like an atomiser and is a feature of the hat?” he asked. Gower had a point — when a woman is wearing a wide-brimmed hat, like my Delphinium hat, kissing her on the cheek while keeping the hat in place is almost impossible.
So what exactly is the etiquette of wearing a hat, and how does one avoid social embarrassment at a traditional summer season event?
1 Wide brims
What is the kissing etiquette for bumping into someone at the Pimm’s bar in the Royal Enclosure? If you are wearing a wide-brimmed hat, my advice is to cut out the public kissing. It’s probably no coincidence that I can’t recall seeing the Duchess of Cambridge in a wide-brimmed hat at an afternoon wedding. If the wedding is at 4pm or later, stick to a pillbox or button-shaped hat.
If the girl is wearing a pillbox hat (made famous by Jackie Kennedy, who wore one by Halston at JFK’s inauguration in 1961), kissing on the cheek – in the Mediterranean style – is both acceptable and considerably easier.
3 Panama or Boater
When wearing a boater, panama or other unisex style, should women obey the rules about removing hats indoors that usually apply to men? Julian Fellowes says a lady should never ever remove her hat, whatever the style, indoors – except in the boudoir.