A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

H is for Hats

Hats might seem an odd choice for an entry in this A-Z of visions of the future. Yet in nineteenth and early twentieth century images of the futures they were everywhere. Perhaps the most humorous example came from Puck’s 1877 vision of the hat of the future, in which the fashion for large, wide-brimmed, women’s hats had been taken to the extreme that headgear could shelter whole families from the sun or rain, support parachuting down from buildings, or be used as an outsize lampshade.

For the most part the hats that litter nineteenth-century images of the future are the hats that were popular in period when the image was produced. Whilst the nineteenth-century saw the slow decline of ‘hat honour’, doffing the cap was still a significant gesture linked to the performance of class and gender. Hats themselves were also not created equal: witness the top-hatted gentleman who complains about the smoke emerging from the steam-powered carriage driven by a country bumpkin wearing a floppy, wide-brimmed, piece of millinery in the 2nd plate of Robert Seymour’s 1830 ‘Locomotion’ series.

One explanation for the conservative nature of futurological-millinery is linked to a desire to provide an index of social and embodied stability in the midst of the other manifold changes apparent in visions of the future. Many of these images, especially examples such as the ‘Hundred Years Hence’ set of trade cards, also worked by locating viewers in the future. By sticking to the same clothing, such images allowed people to imagine themselves as part of the depicted scenarios. Whilst Punch offered up an image of art-gallery audiences flying about with ‘anti-gravity’ underclothing, hats remained firmly ensconced on heads. On the other hand, changing hats – or changing wearers of hats – could indicate adverse shifts in social and gendered hierarchies at work: visions of top-hatted female suffrage campaigners or mortar-boarded ‘lady’ professors offered a case in point. Hats could function as an anchor in a world of change or an indication of just how topsy turvy the future might be.

Yet predictions of innovation in headwear can also be found in these images. Hats became clothing onto which future tools might be grafted. The purpose of the ‘Electro-Magnetic’ hat included in Punch’s 1878 image of a museum of modern antiques is unclear. Another image from Punch, this time from 1906, predicted the probable social impact of innovations in wireless telegraphy and showed a man and a woman each with telegraph receivers poking out of their hats. Meanwhile, Punch’s 1886 vision of the policeman of the future included an electric rattle attached to his helmet, offering a hands-free way of raising the alarm.

Perhaps the most famous example of futuristic hats comes from Robert Seymour’s satirical series ‘Living Made Easy’, which made tongue-in-cheek suggestions about future technological innovation that included, among other things, ‘glass covers for noisy children’. In the most widely shared image from the series, Seymour imagined a ‘revolving hat’ that would present the wearer with items of everyday use ‘without the intolerable trouble of holding them’. In this case, the hats held an eye-glass, cigar, scent-box, spectacles, and a hearing trumpet. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith had noted the expansion of everyday objects that people insisted on carrying around:

All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles… some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.

A revolving hat would provide a useful piece of kit in a consumer culture where objects were an important accompaniment to sociability and an intrinsic part of the grammar of conversation.

Robert Seymour, ‘Living Made Easy. Revolving Hat’, London. Published. by T. McLean, January 1, 1830. Etching, hand coloured.