Casual and Cute Summer Hats for Women, Then and Now

Womens sun hats then and now by Getty Images

If one hat has been a persistent social barometer through the ages, its summer hats for women.

Defined by function over form, sun hats for women have changed in style, shape, size, material, and circumstances of use for centuries and across continents. What qualifies as a sun hat is, broadly speaking, its purpose – to protect from the sun.

Modern sun hats are made of lightweight, breathable materials like straw, mesh or linen. Many are UPF-rated, styled to be sporty or elegant while offering maximum sun protection. The sun hat originated with women who worked out of doors, harvesting rice and wheat or milking cattle and today is a mainstay piece of any summer ensemble.

Simple and functional, hats that strongly resemble those original styles can be found at outdoor events everywhere today: tennis matches, upper-tier horse races, polo competitions, dog shows and garden parties. Today’s styles run the gamut: minimalist hats with narrower brims and floppy wide-brimmed hats whose front brims can be rolled back like feathered locks.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in a black straw sun hat with a wide brim
VENICE, ITALY – AUGUST 31: Maggie Gyllenhaal in a black straw summer hat with a wide brim at the 78th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2021 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)

Evolution of Summer Hats for Women

Styles have ranged by culture and tradition over the years, from 18th century, shallow-crowned European milkmaid hats to plain, broad-brimmed toppers worn by Asian rice paddy farmers and Brazilian coffee plantation workers, to today’s hats that emphasize style as well as sun protection. The summer hat has continually changed with society’s relationship to the sun, women’s place in the out-of-doors, and acceptable skin color.

Straw sun hats for women have always been popular in the summer months to protect against the sun, yet the “why” behind sun protection varied. Laborers wore them to protect against heat and glare, their hats shading the work in front of them. Many women wore them to help prevent their skin from darkening, no matter their race or ethnicity, as paler skin was the sought-after beauty ideal. Until it wasn’t.

Farmer workers picking tea in traditional wide brim sun hats.
Farmer workers picking tea in traditional wide brim sun hats at a plantation in Chekiang (Zhejiang), China, circa 1950. (Photo by Holmes-Lebel/Pix Incorporated/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Farmer workers picking tea at a plantation in Chekiang (Zhejiang), China, circa 1950. (Photo by Holmes-Lebel/Pix Incorporated/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Floppy sun hat worn by English actress Jacqueline Bisset
Floppy sun hat worn by English actress Jacqueline Bisset, USA, 4th May 1970. (Photo by Harry Benson/Daily Express/Getty Images)

The influencer of all influencers, Coco Chanel, returned from a Mediterranean vacation in 1923 with bronzed skin. This was generally attributed to Chanel accidentally falling asleep sans travel hat in the sun and getting a bad burn. Rather than hiding her newly darkened skin, Chanel bragged about her tan, reshaping almost overnight how women thought about darker complexions. It also set the stage for waves of future influencers not just to start trends, but to upend norms.

Gabrielle \"CoCo\" Chanel in bucket hat style straw sun
Gabrielle \”CoCo\” Chanel in bucket hat style straw sun hat with seamed black and white hat band and beads. Photograph, 1931.

When Tan Was Glam

As early as the 1950s, images of women like actor Bridgette Bardot, cupping her wide-brimmed sun hat around her head and face as if to fully capture the sun’s rays, set the stage for the sun-worshipping decades that followed. In the 1960s and 1970s, long hair prevailed and darker skin became more chic, as modern medicine discovered health benefits associated with being in the sun, like ready absorption of vitamin D, and a salve for some skin conditions like certain types of acne and psoriasis.

circa 1975: Summer dresses and sun hats worn with platform shoes. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)
circa 1975: Summer dresses and sun hats worn with platform shoes. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

It was a time of social change, which often starts at the top of society.

And as society became less formal over the years, women generally went out bare-headed, notes CEO Debbie Sessions, a historical fashion expert.

The modern woman often sported a tan and sunglasses, a newly essential fashion accouterments. Though regular hat use continued to fade, sun hats still appeared year after year, changing with modern culture – less formal, simpler, and sparsely ornamented. Frayed edge brimmed straw hats were recently seen on the runway in Rome.

Straw sun hat with raw, frayed edge brim on the runway in Rome 2021
ROME, ITALY – JULY 09: A model walks the runway wearing an Eticlo dress with a frayed edge straw hat at the Rome Is My Runway #2 fashion show during Altaroma 2021 at Cinecitta Studios on July 09, 2021 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images)

“The shape of a wide-brimmed summer hat had a lot to do with hairstyle fashions. In the 1940s and 1950s when hairstyles framed the face, hats had shallow crowns so as not to compress the hair. In contrast, the 1970s hair was long and flat, where a deeper crown was acceptable and stayed on the head better,” Sessions said.

As the 1980s’ sunbathing-in-baby-oil-and-aluminum-foil-craze set in, new research began to show that sun overexposure was linked to skin cancers, and public health campaigns made sure we got the message.

This heralded a new era of the UPF-rated hat, made of lightweight, breathable materials. Stylish and sporty, they were marketed with emphasis on the benefit of measurable sun safety. And in a departure from the sun hat’s humble beginnings, styles resembling what women in the rice fields wore (simple straw or linen but adorned with lace, ribbons, and flowers) began popping up at elite functions: tennis matches, upper-tier horse races, polo competitions, dog shows and garden parties.

Straw Sun Hats for Women

In general, sun hats have wide brims. If it protects your face and neck from the sun, it’s a sun hat. They can be made of anything, but straw is traditional as its lightweight and breathable. We published a piece about dramatic and classic straw hats from women if you’d like to check it out.

Sessions says that often the shape of a wide brim summer hat has a lot to do with hairstyle fashions.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when hairstyles framed the face, hats had shallow crowns so as not to compress the hair. In contrast, the 1970s’ long straight hair followed with a deeper crown that held the hat in place better, and often had wider brims to complement long locks.

Latest Shade Hat Brim Sizes

Today’s sun hats have anywhere from 3 to 8 inch brims, although there is no specific rule about brim width. Factors to consider include what you’ll be doing while wearing the hat – if you’re lolling on the beach, peripheral vision isn’t that big of a deal. If you’re playing tennis or polo, that’s another matter.

Keep in mind the angle of the brim – if it slopes downward, you’ll get more coverage than one that slants upward or straight out. In runway shows and other sightings this year, big sun hats for women have shown up that require you to roll the brim back above the forehead, in modern Dutch miss style.

Best Sun Hats for Short Curly Hair

Dome shaped women\'s straw hat on the runway in Sydney 2021
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MAY 11: A model walks the runway at the Aje Resort 22 Runway show at The Calyx, Royal Botanic Garden on May 11, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Hats for curly hair need to offer sun protection for exposed necks and ears, but brim and crown width and depth should be balanced so as not to overwhelm the wearer’s features.

Shallow crowns are flattering, as are sleekly styled hats with a distinctive silhouette, like a straw fedora.

Heidi Healthfield, a Detroit-area fashionista and hair stylist who has worked on locks of all lengths and textures, notes that big sun hats do love longer hair. But a scarf tied around the hairline with the ends flowing down the neck and back or off to one side provide the same effect.

Best Sun Hats for Long Hair

Long hair loves a big, sassy hat. Wide brims, bold colors, scalloped edges – the longer your hair, the more you can get away with. Some styles have a hole in the back that you can pull a long, glorious ponytail through. Others worship your hair hanging down around your neck and shoulders, framing your face, 70s-style. And while anyone can wear a wide-brimmed sun hat, the one you notice approaching you from way down the beach is usually offset by a mop of long hair anchoring that glorious hat. Heathfield notes that a side bun or braid gives sun hats an elegant touch.

Best Sun Hats for Curly and Natural Hair

Curly hair does well with the lightest of materials – straw and linen, anything that won’t overly compress curly hair and squish those beautiful ringlets. If you have long curly hair, consider popping a few pins in underneath the hat to keep your hair from flattening. Ditto short curly hair, and you can use those pins to keep the hat in place as well or to tip the hat back farther on your head. For natural and afro-textured hair, shallow crowns also work nicely, with less weight and surface area to compress hair. If you have an asymmetrical hairstyle or a deep side part, accentuate it by placing the hat at an angle.

The Hat Drops Here

The women’s sun hat is the ultimate choice to express versatility and style. Worn out of necessity for generations, today it’s an essential element for instagrammers capturing beach days, boat outings and childrens’ sports events, and anyone cavorting outdoors. Shapes, sizes, and styles have morphed year to year, evolving along with our relationship to the sun.

The best sun hats for women can be your travel or adventure companion, stuffed in a boot or your carry-on’s zipper pouch. The simplest and most basic sun hats can be lit up with ribbons, flowers, broaches and any adornments you choose. It can look sexy, sassy, hip, retro, innocent, obnoxious, and so much more.

Women have worn them for every outdoor purpose – while harvesting crops, to protect against the elements during the great American westward expansion, and to top the perfect outdoor wedding outfit. It’s the great democratizer among hats, with styles for every hair type and length, and for every look and occasion.

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