Tuesday 11 March 2014

The Pillbox: a versatile classic

I have a white vintage hat that I've always described as my "Jackie O" hat. My mother described it that way (and other people make the same comment). I was pretty sure it was 1960s, because it's quite high, and looks best on the back of the head. It's not a clean crisp pillbox shape, but it is in that sort of family. I am, however, going to leave more talk of that hat until next month, because I found almost the exact same hat in a 1950s issue of The Australian Women's Weekly, so I'm revising my original opinion!

Regardless, pillbox hats as worn by Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn have long defined 1960s hat fashion for me. So I definitely wanted to make a couple.

A pillbox is really anything with a basically cylindrical shape - straight up-and-down sides and a flat top, and no brim. Being such a simple shape, it's been around for centuries in some form, and has produced so many variations of style. Even if you stick to one foundation shape, the ways it can be covered and trimmed, and the ways it can be worn, make it an incredibly versatile and variable hat.

In the 1960s, the pillboxes get taller than previous versions, but the variety continues. Veiling is an especially popular trim, and used not just as a veil, but for surface design wrapped around the fabric of the hat. The fabric is often swathed around the foundation for a hint of turban style, and pillboxes completely covered in feathers or flowers are also common. For Audrey and Jackie, the plain, unadorned pillbox remains, with only the height separating the early fifties from the late fifties-early sixties style.

Let's look at the ways of wearing a pillbox.

These days, I'd expect the pillbox, like most hats, to sit forward on the face, and to one side. Modern millinery is very focused on this way of wearing hats, and most are designed with this in mind. In the fifties and sixties, you don't see it as often, but it does appear, as in this photo from The Australian Women's Weekly (5 Jan 1966, pg 16). You'll notice, though, that the inspiration for this look, Princess Margaret, is wearing it back on the head.

My grandmother Wendy recalls wearing a black pillbox hat with veil in the 1960s, and wearing it straight on the top of the head. This is also still popular, as in a fashion spread from The Australian Women's Weekly (22 June 1960, pg 29), showing a suit to wear to the theatre, and a lower-crowned pillbox style, and another from the 15th of August 1962 issue (page 21) for a higher crocheted pillbox.

Audrey and Jackie's iconic looks have the pillbox towards the back of the head, and this style is also seen in fashion shoots and on everyday women, and other celebrities. The same tapestry pillbox worn forward on the head above is also shown back on the head, and is inspired by one worn by Princess Margaret, who wore it back on the head. Here's a lovely photo of the Duchess of Kent wearing a pillbox this way, while patting a cow (AWW Nov 20, 1968, pg 11).

The Jackie Kennedy obsession was pretty serious in 1964, based on an article (AWW, 12 July 1964, page 4) about getting "The Jackie Look", which includes instructions for a "Jackie" pillbox hat and for her hairstyle, and this photo of a "double" for Jackie, who is actually a 17 year old girl from Randwick who does clerical work.

The article opens with: "By wearing it often, Jackie Kennedy has set her seal of approval on the pillbox hat. The pillbox is youthful, chic and very pretty - and it's a hat that anyone can make."

While researching pillboxes, I discovered that Bob Dylan wrote a song entitled "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat." (Lyrics from www.bobdylan.com)

"Well, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Yes, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
Well, you must tell me, baby
How your head feels under somethin’ like that
Under your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat"

"You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat"

What styles of pillbox do you like and which way do you (or would you) wear them? 

This post is part of a series "Hats of the Past: A milliner explores history." Previous posts are my first impressions and changing ideas about sixties fashion, and a look at sixties style of fur hat.


  1. I like the back of head look, but I'm not sure that I have the hair to work with that.
    Crocheted pillbox would be easy, but the one pictured is by far the least elegant example you gave! Hmmm...

    1. I think you have the perfect hair for it! The curls give you a nice texture at the front, and the shortness means you don't have to put it up and have that get in the way. I liked the back of the head look way more than I thought I would. It was more flattering than I expected. Next time we meet up I'll bring a pillbox and you can see for yourself!

      And I like the crocheted one! But I have come across a number of crochet hat patterns in my browsing, and I admit there are much nicer ones.

  2. My word, that tremendously beautiful dark green one is sincerely making me swoon! My jaw all but hit the floor when I saw it, Tanith dear, it's so incredibly lovely. Marvelous work across the board with all these classic pillbox hats.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. Thank you for the lovely compliment. I'm glad you like it. I adore that colour green myself, and I was lucky enough to be given the brooch by a friend (among many like it).

  3. I love pillbox hats, but they never seem to look right on me =/ I'm not giving up though, I will find one!!!

    1. Yep, keep trying! There are so many subtle variations that can make such a big difference. And I'm sure you will find one you like, you look so good in hats and scarves in your blog photos!

  4. The photo with the mirror is stunning. I think you should use it as your main blog photo! Mum

    1. Thanks :) I didn't know he was taking photos at that point, I was actually adjusting my hair!


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