Call the Fashion Police! I’m Wearing an Illegal Hatpin!

To keep my hats jaunty but secure at Edwardian events, I use one of my antique, pre-ban hatpins. Pre-ban? What’s that? Well, as silly as it may sound to us, in the 1910s, cities around the globe passed laws outlawing certain sizes of hatpins! Why would governments and police departments waste valuable time outlawing fashion accessories?
Until about 1970, hats were a major part of a woman’s wardrobe. They have varied in size, material, and decor, but one of the primary problems with hats is that, if caught by a gust of wind, it can easily escape from you! Ladies have employed a variety of methods to avert this: making the hat deep enough that it sit snugly on the head or using ribbons to tie them down, wire loops that grasp your head (many 1950s hats use this method), or clips and combs that grab onto your hair. One of the most popular antique methods we no longer use was the hatpin. Hatpins hold your hat on securely by attaching your hat to your hairstyle. That way, as long as your bun is secure, your hat can’t fall off or blow away in the wind! It also helps perch the hat high on your head so it’s not smashing your hairdo or hiding your face. To wear one, you position your hat as desired, thrust the pin through one side of the crown, carefully sliding it under a portion of your hair, and then pushing the pin back out the other side of the hat.

Sort of like this…
The closer yo can get the pin to your scalp, the better. But watch out! You don’t want to jab yourself!

Hatpins  started out as wimple pins used to hold women’s veils in place as far back as Roman times. Those pins were fairly small. However, as women’s headwear changed, so did the pins. It was during the late 18th century– when outrageous large hats perched on outrageously large hairdos–that hatpins first began to appear. Hatpins didn’t truly become common until the mid-to-late 19th century when hats overtook bonnets as the most fashionable form of headwear. A hatpin became an indispensable part of a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe. Victorian hats were fairly small for the most part, but as the turn of the century drew near, the hats grew larger and more elaborate…not unlike the giant hats of 100 years earlier.

Mary Boteler by John Hoppner, 1786

Publicity photo of performer Rhonda Ray, circa 1903-1907

Les Modes Hats, circa 1907

Hats and hairstyles in the Edwardian era were enormous, requiring equally enormous hatpins– often so long and sharp that they could not only jab you, but anyone that got too close to you. Indeed, at over a foot long and made of rigid steel, an Edwardian hatpin makes a formidable weapon! There are even poems, books, and songs written about women defending themselves with hatpins! Mugger trying to get your purse? STAB ‘EM! Pervert “mashing” (harassing) you on the train? EN GARDE!

Poke me, eh? I’LL POKE YOU!

Newspapers published many stories about women defending themselves with their hatpins– including in Chicago, one of the first cities to institute  hatpin laws. In 1902 the Chicago Tribune published an article about Jaunite Bonneau– one of the first female couriers for Western Union– defending herself with “Fists and Hatpin” against a group of young male attackers– and being completely blamed for hurting the lads that attacked her.

You can find even more Chicago Tribune articles about hatpins being used as weapons in their searchable archives. Most have a rather negative view of hatpins and the women wielding them, but there are a few articles that mention their use in a more positive light, including this 1898 blurb about Barbara Stack who “routed street car robbers with a hatpin” or this 1907 horror story about a woman defending herself from a kidnapping rapist.

The uniquely feminine weapon did not sit too well with men used to submissive ladies, so beginning in 1908, they began passing laws limiting the length of hatpins, usually to no more than 7-9 inches. Other cities passed regulations requiring safety caps for hatpins rather than outright banning longer ones. This seemed like a much more practical approach to the problem of accidental stabbings– a naked pin point sticking out of a hat could accidentally injure people around you– though requiring a cap rendered the pin much harder to use for self-defense, too. Other cities allowed longer, uncapped pins, but they could stick out no more than 1/2″ or you could face a hefty fine— including paying reparations:

From the Boston Sacred Heart Review April 12, 1913.
It is probably not a coincidence that the notice about outlawing hatpins as weapons appears just below an article about militant suffragettes in England.

Male lawmakers weren’t just making idle threats, either. Women vehemently opposed the laws and some ladies were even arrested for wearing long or uncapped pins in their hats, especially suffragettes. Yes, policemen would actually stop women to inspect their hats for illegal hatpins. For example, here’s a clip from a newspaper article about arresting women with long hatpins. At a fierce 13 inches long, my hatpin could have landed me in the slammer if I wore it without a permit after 1908!

Pre-ban Hatpin on the left, 13″ long circa 1900
“Legal” hatpin on the right, 7″ long circa 1890-1915
Somewhat ironically, the shorter hatpin is sharper. You could definitely still defend yourself easily with it!

Hatpins do require extra attention in order to wear them safely. Truth be told, a properly worn hatpin should not be noticeable at all when worn. It should hide amid your hat trimmings, showing only the bejeweled end if it has one. The sharp end shouldn’t not stick out more than an inch (unless it also has a decorative cap as some 1910-1950 hatpins do).  If you are like me and have a hatpin a bit too long for your hat, you must be very careful when giving hugs or taking selfies with friends, not to mention being careful not to stab yourself! However,  hatpins are incredibly important if you want to wear historical hats properly…or defeat hooligans.

Post-ban newspaper articles take a decidedly dark view of women using hatpins. Many reference the violent protests of women’s rights activists as proof that women could not be trusted with sharp objects, no matter how prettily decorated:

Whether the hatpin ban made women adopt smaller hats or whether the natural flow of fashion made the edicts obsolete, it’s hard to say, but as the 1910s progressed, hats changed to sit lower on the head and slowly shrunk in scale. By 1920, a decade after the hatpin laws passed, women had adopted shorter hair, shorter skirts, and close-fitting cloches that didn’t need hatpins at all. American women also got the vote so we could fight to wear what we want!

A fight for fashion is a fight for freedom!

I actually don’t know when–or even if!– places like Chicago, New Orleans, and Melbourne repealed their hatpin bans…for all I know, it’s one of those weird laws left on the books after all these years and I’m technically a criminal in some municipalities!


22 thoughts on “Call the Fashion Police! I’m Wearing an Illegal Hatpin!

  1. I always enjoy these little bits of odd history that you share. I know a bit more about Victorian fashion than Edwardian (and consequently have shorter hat pins than that amazing sabre you wielded), but I’m interested in history of all sorts. Since I like to store knowledge with mental images, I always love how much history can be tied up around fashion. Please keep up your quirky blog posts!

      1. Being pedantic they’re not the same thing at all.
        Sydney is in New South Wales, Melbourne in Victoria – down here this sort of thing is legislated at a state level, not nationally (hence Melbourne having a thriving night life while Sydney’s dies out).
        Time to do actual research involving books not Google!

      2. I know that Melbourne is no more Sydney than New York is San Francisco. By the way you worded your inquiry, I thought you were interested in general examples of hatpin incidents in Australia. I did not realize that you were only interested in Melbourne.

  2. I have been hot on the trail looking for antique hat pins. I’ve been able to find quite a few of the plain white and black bead for very little money. The fancier ones are harder to come by and if I spend some serious money on buying one (or two or a few) I want to be sure I know what I’m buying with regards to age and style. Do you have a good resource to get a good idea so I know what I’m doing? I enjoyed the article, very helpful.

    1. I am not a hatpin expert, but there are Hatpin Societies in the US and UK that might be of some service. I got my hatpins as family heirlooms and on eBay.

      1. Sadly, the U.K. Society folded a few years ago, after a long ‘career’. Definitely ‘gone but not forgotten’ by the members who enjoyed many informative and enjoyable get-togethers. I’m definitely of the opinion that as the rims of hats became smaller, because false hair which bulked out the natural hair became less fashionable, the hat pins started to protrude beyond the rim, making them dangerous. That was why they were banned without safety devices – and a good thing too, as people had eyes poked out!

  3. LOL. Great post. We scofflaws must stick together (and avoid sticking each other with careful hatpin placement, of course). Off to play a suffragist in a local film production. Will be wearing the longest antique hatpin in my collection. Grabby-handed men, beware!

  4. Great Post and lovely hat! The public transport in my hometown Hamburg had signs on all vehicles up until the middle of the 90s forbidding hairpins of all sorts. They`ve been gone for a while and now I am really tempted to go on the train wearing one of my big hats with my longest pretty pin of 12,5″

  5. I LOVE this history story! What a bunch of you-know-what from that judge who defended the houligans. I’d like to take a hatpin to HIM. Thank goodness things have changed. I appreciate all the digging you did for facts to present in this episode of your blog.

  6. Just when I thought I’d heard of all the dumb ways men try to control​ women’s attire, I hear about something like this. Sheesh!

  7. A hatpin question for the better informed: In pictures of Queen Elizabeth of the UK you can see hatpins in her hats. I’m just wondering, since her hair is pretty short, are they doing anything or are they just hat bling? What sort of hairdo is the absolute minimum for hatpins to work?

  8. Good heavens – I am a hatpin criminal myself!
    I’m a writer (of historical novels) and I have taken to dressing in late Victorian/Edwardian costume for book events — including hats with the requisite hatpins!
    My two longest are 12 inches, fairly heavy steel and sharp. One is topped with a large black faceted glass bead, about 3/4s of an inch in diameter, the other with a smaller black glass bead. They came to me by way of my daughter, who bought a vase that she liked at a neighborhood yard sale for a couple of dollars — and the hatpins were stuck into the vase. Believe me, when one of my hats is anchored on with one of those — that sucker isn’t going anywhere! The other two are from antique stores, and only 9 and 10 inches, with plain glass beads, bought at antique shops. I’d love to have some of the fancier ones, but not at the prices asked. I’m not a collector, I use the darned things!

    It does amuse small children though, when I show them how my hat is held on, and explain the potential for hatpin as weapon.

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