The Many Hats of Mass Observation

19 July 2018

By Lindsey Tydeman

A lady wearing a hat to complete her outfit is an unusual sight in 2018, unless she is on her way to Ascot or a high-end wedding. But in 1939, at the start of what would become World War 2, the subject of hats and their wearing were felt to be important by the people at Mass Observation. There was anxiety on the topic, and, although definite fears were unspecified, the interest of MO in women’s fashion in general showed that the subject was considered to be an indicator of, and an influence on, the state of female civilian morale. ‘What happiness for the millions, who in this way can escape from their sooty street so gardenless, by buying a hat with flowers in front, ‘as good as any lady in the land’,’ wrote MO’s founder Tom Harrisson. A woman could be, ‘a Duchess for 3/11.’

In December 1939 an MO Observer was sent to a fashion gala at Grosvenor House attended by the wealthy and aristocratic. He reported that, ‘standards of fashion generally were quite up to pre-war standard’, with women ‘only too glad to go back to ultra-fashionable dress. Hats particularly take this turn.’ There was, ‘Obvious approval when told by the commentator that it is more patriotic to buy new clothes than not to.’

That was reassuring, but what about most women? Fewer seemed to be wearing hats as the war went on and observers were regularly sent into the West End and East End of London to note exact numbers. They also drew and described hats in shop windows. In 1944 a hat count taken by an observer standing at Whitechapel Station recorded that out of 300 women, 94 were hatless, 128 wore hats (nearly half of them in black felt), while the remaining women wore scarves and ‘pixies’.

By 1947 Harrisson was worried about scarves. He set out to discover ‘if the scarf has become a permanent menace to the hat trade’ and reported that women were willing to sacrifice two clothing coupons for a scarf although hats were coupon-free. An observer in London one Sunday in October 1947 found that out of 20 women, 7 wore hats, 5 wore scarves and 8 went bareheaded.

An audience of middle-aged women at Brighton Dome, possibly the County Conference of the British Legion Women’s Section in November 1958. Nearly every woman is wearing a hat.

An audience of middle-aged women at Brighton Dome, possibly the County Conference of the British Legion Women’s Section in November 1958. Nearly every woman is wearing a hat.

It was a sign of things to come. In the early days of the War, MO had noted that 82 per cent of women over 40 were wearing ‘a proper hat’ compared with only 45 per cent of the under 40s. As time went on it was the younger women who were the quickest to lay their ‘proper’ hats aside while the older group clung on to theirs the longest. Harrisson, beginning a survey designed to prompt the reawakening of the British hat industry in October 1947, stated that, ‘It must be of great interest to the hat manufacturers to find out the present day attitude of the general public.’ However, the ensuing MO survey was to reveal that the general public, especially women, didn’t care half as much about hats as Harrisson did and they were certainly not prepared to spend large amounts of hard-earned money on them. MO has been quiet on the subject ever since.