Head Where the Hats Are


The Zulu isicholo (left) and Haredi shtreimel (right) both signify marital status. © Cassiopeia Neely

We put hats in boxes, but the inverse is often true, too. Hats evoke a sense of place and time—they conceal the head, but they also reveal something about the wearer. A Stetson suggests a rugged lifestyle, just as a cloche conjures the image of a Roaring Twenties flapper. An Australian book I recently edited described a character in a “flat cap,” and based on context I knew this was a contemptible sartorial choice, but I couldn’t picture the hat without Google’s help. (Apparently they’re called driving caps in the United States.) I started to wonder, What other headwear don’t I know about?

Women the world over walk down the aisle in veils, while Bengali brides wear mukut tiaras to match their groom’s topor, and Minang women of West Sumatra wear elaborate gilded crowns called suntiang gadang. Covering one’s head is an important wedding custom in many cultures, and it is often continued after the big day to signify marital status.

In the nineteenth century, Zulu wives of South Africa traditionally wore a distinctive conical hairstyle to honor their spouses, but these coiffures were replaced by the isicholo, or married woman’s hat, in the mid-twentieth century. Originally woven with grass fibers and human hair, and dyed with ochre to symbolize beauty and femininity, these flared, flat-topped hats are now made with vibrant synthetic materials and come in an array of colors and patterns. No longer de rigueur for married Zulu women, the contemporary isicholo is largely reserved for ceremonial events.

Similarly, married Haredi Jewish men wear a fur hat called a shtreimel with Shabbosdik garments—those deemed appropriate for the Sabbath—during Shabbat, holidays, and weddings. Since the shtreimel has no inherent religious significance, though, it is always worn over a yarmulke. Despite rising concern about animal cruelty, shtreimel are made with thirteen, eighteen, or twenty-six fur tails to symbolize, respectively, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy; the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life,” chai (יח); and the numerical value of the tetragrammaton, YHWH (יהוה), which is the four-letter name of God for observant Jews. (The gematria, the alphanumeric code used to calculate these numerical values seeks to uncover the significance of words.)


The Korean heungnip gat (left) and Dutch oorijzers (right) denote social status while offering practical functions. © Cassiopeia Neely 

Like the isicholo and the shtreimel, many cultural headpieces denote status, and some also offer practical functions. The gat, a wide-brimmed hat mostly sported by Korean noblemen and scholars during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), protected the customary marital sangtu, or topknot. Under the gat, the sangtu was pinned and held in place by a headband called a manggeon. A special type of gat, the heungnip (literally “black hat”), and the decorative strings of beads that often adorned them (gatkkeun), were reserved for men who had passed civil service examinations, while commoners were permitted to wear a split-bamboo alternative, the paeraengi. The semitransparent black heungnip, made of horse hair and bamboo, is virtually synonymous with the word gat, though, as commoners rarely wore hats.

In the sixteenth century, oorijzers, Dutch for “ear irons,” were practical brass headbands worn by the peasant women of Friesland, a northern province in the Netherlands. These early oorijzers wrapped behind the head, came down over the ears, and pressed firmly into the wearer’s cheeks to keep lace caps in place. Over the next century, at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, the form changed drastically. Some oorijzers evolved to look like helmets, while others were appended with ornamental fixtures that indicated a number of personal details such as societal status, the profession of the wearer’s husband or son, locality, or religious affiliation. Wealthier women wore gold oorijzers, while others wore affordable versions that were comprised of silver or gilded-brass bands with gold knobs. Dutch women no longer wear oorijzers on a daily basis, but these culturally important headpieces often feature prominently at present-day traditional events.


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