Life & Culture

The changing trends in Yom Tov hats

There's a trend to go bare-headed in shul, but we should resist


Glamorous Woman in Glitter Fashionable Dress and wide broad brim hat

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote LP Hartley. “They do things differently there.”
Hat-wearing is one of the things they did differently in this foreign land. They wore hats all the time. And not for practical reasons like keeping warm or protection from blazing sun. Within the lifetime of the post-war generation, it was normal for women to wear hats any time they left the house.

That all changed in the Sixties. But for the subsequent four or five decades, Jewish women continued to buy new hat for New Year — and if they went regularly to synagogue at Pesach and Shavuot too.

Little more than 20 years ago, the display of Rosh Hashanah hats at synagogues such as St John’s Wood in London or Hale in South Manchester would have rivalled the extravagant confections seen at Ascot Ladies Day. Even at many less affluent congregations the Rosh Hashanah millinery could make you blink, or force you to sit up straighter to see over the top of an extravagant cluster of feathers.

Times change. And, of course, fashions change — I should know, I’ve been writing about hats in the JC forever. As we welcome 5784, I would expect women of all ages to be wearing casual or “boyfriend” hats, such as fedoras or trilbies. Over-60s might choose a more formal hat that nods to this casual, mannish vibe, such as a velour hat by Siggi trimmed with feather or satin-rose, or a fedora in fuchsia by Ruslan Baginsky. Fans of the current Princess of Wales/Duchess of Cambridge or of Sarah-Jessica Parker in the SATC re-boot, And Just Like That, may even opt for a structured beret/oversized pillbox perched on the side of the head. A few will wear a flimsy fascinator. But that’s as extravagent as it gets.

Edgware resident Gillian Gold, whose mother and grandmother were both milliners, is nostalgic for the days of “glamorous, flamboyant” Yom Tov hats. Gold, who managed Jewish Care’s volunteer programme for over 17 years, says these can “lift your mood, enhance your outfit and make you feel special.”

The grandmother of eight pruned her own collection — many still in their original hatboxes — when she downsized a year or two ago. A few went to her granddaughters’ dressing-up boxes, and others retained for special occasions in synagogue “as they make my family smile,” including a wide-brim fuchsia with a cascade of pink satin flowers.

Hampstead-based Marilyn De Keyser, who was publicist in the 1980s for leading milliner, Graham Smith — whose glittering client list included Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor (who once asked for 28 hats to be brought to the Dorchester and bought all of them) — says that “many Jewish clients” bought Smith’s super stylish hats for the High Holy Days.
But, she says “the world has changed.” Then, we were “living in a more formal world.”
What about the increasing trend of no head-covering at all — seen in recent years even in Orthodox synagogues.

Gold believes it is “respectful” to wear a head-covering “wherever davening takes place.” My friend Sue agrees. “I think some people may be unaware that it’s respectful for women to cover their hair in a synagogue.” She notes that older women “mostly still wear hats” but fewer younger women do, “perhaps because no-one has explained why they should.”
She is also firm that a “hat” cannot be “a bow or a feather glued onto a comb.” Fascinators are cute hair decorations, she avers, “but they aren’t hats.”

At Mill Hill Synagogue, Rebbetzin Chanie Schochet says she has noticed “some recent resistance” to the wearing of hats but says that “by and large everyone adheres to the required dress code.”

The move to casual headwear is “a reflection” of less formality in fashion,“ she says. “It’s about the impact on the psyche of being dressed differently from every day.”

At Mill Hill, the policy on head-covering is in line with United Synagogue guidelines. But they don’t enforce it. They “encourage” head-covering, says the rebbetzin. “It is about finding a balance, without making people feel uncomfortable.”

As someone who cares rather too much about how clothing and accessories match, I clearly remember thinking in the 1980s when I was a regular at shul on Shabbat with my two little daughters, that hat-wearing was a faff and it would have been preferable to belong to a progressive congregation where a hat wasn’t required. But now, as hats seem about to vanish entirely, I feel a definite pang of regret for the quite recent past when fabulous hats were a feature of every simchah but especially of every Yom Tov. Hold onto your hats, ladies, it’s time to take a stand for tradition.

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