Straw has been woven and plaited into head coverings since ancient times. This fiber, which is prepared through harvesting, boiling, drying, sorting, and splitting, combines lightness and strength which enables it to be shaped into hats with wide brims that provide shade without significant weight. Straw is also breathable, making it ideal for warmer climates and outdoor work. In fashion, however, the functionality of straw has often been secondary to the style of the times.
The men's boater, said by some to have been popularized by Gondoliers in Italy, became a prevalent item of western fashion in the latter half of the 19th century. Originally worn by men, this style of hat was adopted by women, and sometimes augmented with furbelows (showy trimming, top right). The fiber used for boaters was often quite toothy when compared to the straw used in hats like that of the silk flowered hat pictured above. This plaited and coiled hat has a density that gives it both pliability and visual movement. The small and essentially brimless bleached white straw hat with brown velvet trim (bottom left) is made from a weave so fine that it looks somewhat unlike preconceptions we might have about straw hats. And, of course, the crisp and clean look of straw is maximized with styles that are derivative of the sailor hat (bottom middle). Straw can also be dyed, creating quite a formal aesthetic (bottom right).
Top left: Straw hat with silk and velvet flora, 1930-1939, Alvin New York, Gift of Irma Bullard
Top right: Straw boater with artificial fruit, 1957-1959, Peck & Peck, Gift of Joanne Pirsch
Bottom left: Straw hat with velvet trim, 1944-1946, John Frederics, Gift of Gloria Cherne Hogan
Bottom middle: Straw hat with white ribbon, 1960-1969, Sally Victor, Gift of Muriel Humphrey Brown
Bottom right: Black straw hat, 1960-1969, Mr. John, Gift of Marjorie Rooks