As you may have noticed, 18th century fashions exist in direct opposition to the sleek chic of Coco Chanel who said, “When accessorizing, always take off the last thing you put on.” Far be it from Georgian fashionistas to heed this advice, I will revise on their behalf, “When accessorizing, always pile on twice what you intended to put on.”
Fortunately for us aesthetically inclined history geeks, this means hats–hats with plumes, hats with high floating ships á la Belle Poule, hats with hamsters (okay, maybe they were foxtails).
Millinery in this century was a glorious affair and being a hat girl myself, I find myself lamenting they went out of style because really, who doesn’t look more glamorous with a bit of shadowed brow?
This namesake hat’s fame relies on two well-known 18th century figures, the first being the English painter Thomas Gainsborough, the royal family’s favorite portrait artist. In 1783 he painted Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wearing a hat designed by the lady herself and much like Georgiana’s other trends, this one exploded. Stylized the “Picture Hat” after the portrait’s wildly admired exhibition at the Royal Academy, ladies flocked to milliners, requesting a large hat with a curved brim, colored black and complemented with a wide ribbon and a profusion of plumes. Many of Gainsborough’s subsequent works feature this hat, as the ton adored being painted wearing it. Later, in the Victorian period up until the dawn of World War I, its popularity gained favor among the sartorial crowd, though the hat often took on a slightly smaller and less festooned appearance. Around the 1900’s, the Gainsborough was referrred to as the Merry Widow, a name taken from an operetta by Franz Lehar where Hanna, the heroine, sported an imitation of Georgiana’s original “Picture Hat.”
Lily Elsie, actress in The Merry Widow, London 1907