Sunday, August 24, 2014

Iconic Hats: The Cloche

Cloche/ klōSH: A woman’s close-fitting bell shaped hat.
Origins: late 19th century: from French, literally 'bell'

There is some debate in fashion circles, but the invention of the iconic cloche hat is attributed to the French milliner Caroline Reboux in 1908. Reboux began her career as a designer in an entry level position at one of the hat shops that existed on avenue Matignon in Paris, France around the age of 15. She would later open her first shop, which would serve as her base for the remainder of her career, on the same street in 1865. At a time when image was vital to societal status, she crafted a back history that portrayed her as the child of an impoverished noblewoman and a man of letters. Tragically orphaned at an early age, she made her to way to Paris to live, eventually finding work in the fashion district where pluck, talent and artistic vision led to her phenomenal success.

Reboux’s ascent to the rank of the “Queen of the Milliners” however was not the rags to riches story it appears to be on the surface. Her meteoric rise was a combination of several factors. The more accurate version of events is that she began her career in Paris at a time when haute couture was reaching the tipping point. What had begun with Marie Antoinette in the 1700’s was now within reach of all of the affluent women across Europe in part due to the expansion of transportation. With the emergence of railroads and steamships the wealthier classes of women could easily travel to Paris to obtain their custom made, unique fashions. Dressmaking became an art rather than a simple necessity of life.

During this time, hats were re-emerging as essential fashion accessories. The simple bonnet was being replaced by extravagant chapeaus. It was the perfect time to be a master of millinery arts and Reboux was fortunate enough to have been discovered by the Empress Eugenie,
the empress consort of Emperor Napoleon III of France. Other notable customers included the infamous socialite Princess Pauline von Metternich and the French writer Elsa Triolet. The Empress Eugenie not only endorsed and wore Reboux’s creations, greatly increasing her clientele, but was a financial supporter as well, allowing her the opportunity to open that first shop. Reboux went on to launch shops in other locations in Paris and eventually in London as well.  

In addition to her innovations as a designer, Reboux was also an innovator in the business world, supporting other women as a mentor both creatively and financially. She trained several apprentices who later went on to open shops in New York and Chicago, including Lilly Dachè, who trained under Reboux for five years before emigrating to the United States. Reboux employed approximately 150 women in her various shop locations. She consistently recognized and rewarded her employees for excellence.  One of Reboux’s standard business practices was to divide half of her profits among her staff.

The first cloches were custom made hats, crafted individually by wrapping fabric around the customer’s head and then cutting, folding and sewing it into shape. They are worn snug against the head, low around the eyes, with or without brims. The hat gradually evolved from the exclusive realm of haute couture into the ranks of ready to wear and by the 1920’s it was a fashion necessity for every woman’s wardrobe.

The cloche became closely identified with the “Flapper,” a young brash incarnation of women in the 1920’s, a historical time period that is characterized by the social, political, economical, and cultural instability in the aftermath of World War I. The Flappers wore short skirts and slacks, cut their hair, and rebelled against what was considered acceptable behavior at the time.  The cloche was also popular with less rebellious women because they could tuck their hair under the cap allowing for the illusion of shorter hair without actually having to cut it. The popularity of the bob, or the crop cut, did not take hold firmly throughout the female population until the middle of the 1920s.

Haute couture designs were often intricate, expensive hats, many of which are now on display in museums throughout America and Europe. The initial cloches were made of felt but as they gained popularity other materials like straw were used. While the cloches were, and still are, often wore plain, allowing the quality of the design and designer to speak for themselves, hats could be adorned with brooches, feathers, flowers, beading, embroidery and ribbons. One of the advantages of this practice was that it produced a fresh look to an existing hat. Various appliqués were also used as pop culture code. Depending on the item and the way it was affixed to the hat, it could indicate the relationship status of the woman wearing the cloche.

My basic crocheted cloche pattern was named after Lois Long, a writer for The New Yorker magazine from its origins in 1925 until 1968. In the beginning she wrote under the pseudonym “Lipstick” about her daily, and more often nightly, exploits as a flapper in New York City. Her work was immensely popular. Long was not simply a kiss and tell confessional writer however. As the roaring 20s came to end she evolved and continued to write as a columnist under her own name for The New Yorker. If you are interested in a compelling and often hilarious view of New York during the 1920’s take the time to look up her work in The New Yorker archives.

If you would like to crochet your own cloche, you can download my free Lipstick Cloche pattern in my pattern stores at Ravelry or Craftsy. It's the perfect canvas to dazzle your part of the universe with your own style and creativity. Add a bow, brooch or flower and make the hat your own statement piece.



1 comment:

  1. Very interesting history! I had no idea! I've always been partial to velvet cloches although I don't own any.