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Cocktail Hat vs. Fascinator. One Is A Hat, The Other A Head Ornament

1956 silk cocktail hat by Mr. John..What’s the difference between a cocktail hat and a fascinator? The answer is not much. Both are small, elegant, whimsical fashion statements and, these days, the two terms are often used interchangeably.

But if you really want to know, there are some differences between the two.  The cocktail hat is the precurser of the fascinator.  It came first, and today’s fascinator is not a real hat, but a delightful head ornament that clearly has its origins in yesterday’s cocktail hat.


The Cocktail Hat


The cocktail hat came into being in the 1930’s, with a lot of help from Hollywood.  Designers like Elsa Schiaparelli  and Mr. John created cocktail hat designs for the movies and women of fashion eagerly adopted them all over the world.

For a well dressed woman, either in the movies, or in real life,  to go out to lunch or to a business appointment during the day required one kind of hat, but being escorted (and a lady was always escorted) to a cocktail party, tea dance or elegant art opening or formal reception in the late afternoon, all dressed up in a cocktail dress,meant either going bare headed or wearing an entirely different kind of hat. Enter the cocktail hat! It was small, often veiled, and perched on the top or the side of the head— but though it was small and elegant, it was a real hat— made on a real hat form.  It had a base and could sit on the head, held in place by nothing more than a traditional hatpin.

 Ballenciaga cocktail hat 1953. Photo: John Rawlings

 Certainly, it was permissable for a woman to go bare headed to a cocktail party or tea dance back in the day, but when the cocktail hat appeared on the scene, women of fashion took it up with enthusiasm and through the 1940’s and 50’s and even into the 1960’s,  the cocktail hat was de rigeur for smart women everywhere.


The Fascinator


Today’s fascinator, the linear descendant of the cocktail hat, is constructed quite differently.  It is usually a small base, perched rakishly on the side or top of the head and attached with combs, clips, pins or elastic, or a combination of all these, to keep it in place.  It is not really a  formed hat at all.

It usually sits at a charmingly rakish angle and is almost always decorated with feathers. In addition there may also be jewels, lace, flowers and veils, but almost always, there will be feathers or plumes of some sort.  The fascinator, made popular by the former Kate Middleton, now Duchess of Cambridge,is  a UK favorite and is quickly being adopted on this side of the Atlantic as well.  Fascinators are fast becoming the in thing to wear at society weddings for both guests and bridesmaids— and sometimes even the bride.

There were quite a number of fascinating fascinators on hand at Churchill Downs for the running of the Kentucky Derby this year and at fashionable Kentucky Derby parites all over the country.  The fascinator is definitely here to stay, and whatever you want to call it, it is a wonderful addition to the ever expanding fashion world of hats. 


the woman who made the fascinator famous