Armed and Fashionable– When Fashion Meets Public vs. Personal Safety

While “flipping the books” (converting library call numbers from Dewey to Library of Congress) in the circulating collection of the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library, the book entitled, “The Hatpin Menace: American Women Armed and Fashionable, 1887-1920,” crossed my desk. The cover art was catchy; a beautiful, behatted young lady with a Mona Lisa smile looked out at the prospective reader next to a silly black-and-white cartoon of a man being skewered by a woman’s hatpin that is as long as she is tall.

Okay, I thought, somebody wrote an entire book about hatpins, menacing hatpins. How could that be interesting, and why is it in the scholarly collection of HPNL? But I was curious, needed a bit of a break from flipping, so I decided to take a look inside.

Why hatpins? To keep big hats on women’s heads.

Why big hats? To fit on top of big hair. Women, during the period covered by Segrave, added all kinds of gewgaws and doodads (properly named falls, puffs, and rats(!)) to their already long and bunched up hair. To keep the hat from tipping off the mountain of hair piled up on a woman’s head, pins– long, sharp, pointy pins– were jammed in through the hat, all that hair, and forced out through the other side of the hat, leaving the pointy end exposed to whomever or whatever might come near.

Alrighty then. Why big hair? Fashion (turn to the left, as instructed by David Bowie). Fashion is art and art doesn’t need a reason. It just is. You’re just going to have to accept this as a fact to understand all that follows it with the big hats, the necessity of big hatpins, AND subsequent big trouble they caused.

The problem started when the women, for the most part well-to-do city women (with money to buy the hats, hatpins, and have access to theaters and restaurants), wore these millinery monstrosities out in public and blocked the view and caused unintentional physical harm to those around them. Imagine paying for a seat to see Caruso and being eclipsed by a two-foot wide Merry Widow (a very popular style of big hat at the time). Take it off, you say? Oh no, these hats were engineered to be tethered to and balanced on the woman’s head. Take off the hat and the dressed hair is destroyed; putting it back on would be an ordeal. Once that hat was on, it was on for the evening. Some theaters started putting up signage, requesting women not wear the big hats to their venues, but they didn’t want to kick them out if they balked at removing them– they would lose patrons and, more importantly, the patron’s money. If they did take them off (and put on little bonnets during the performance), they would pierce the hatpin through the back of their chairs, with the potential of stabbing the patron behind them. That’s not to say the less-than-well-to-do women were off the hook; many people were poked during their ride on public transit– some was intentional, some not; you’ll find that in chapters 3 and 4 of this book.

In general, the problem started when the women’s choice to wear the big hats with the dangerous hatpins infringed on other people’s rights. I’m starting to understand why this book is in HPNL. Wear it in your house, fine. Wear it in public, hang on a minute, Maisie…

The author thoroughly and methodically, but in a most entertaining way, covers the convergence of the shift from rural to city life, the first wave of feminism, suffrage, a perceived threat to the patriarchy of women armed with a legal ‘deadly weapon’, and the advent of bigtime advertising (BUY OUR BEAUTIFUL HATS AND PINS!!!). There are oodles of chapter notes and a bountiful bibliography at the tail end of the book to back up his research. Pictures are liberally placed throughout the book of the hat and hatpin advertising, hatpins, signage regarding the wearing of ladies’ hats indoors, people maimed by hatpin damage, and many cartoons (some silly, some mocking, some serious) regarding the whole Big Hat and Menacing Hatpin situation. He pulls all kinds of resources out of his hat, so to speak.

In the first two chapters, Segrave starts out by explaining the Why Big Hats and Long Hatpins. He then answers the question, “Who’s it really hurting if these gals want to wear big hats?” in Chapters 3-6. The short answers are:

  1. The wearer of the hat(pin) or those around her. Segrave gives numerous examples of horrible incidences recorded in newspapers of women falling and doing damage to themselves, or of turning their heads quickly and slashing a cheek or poking an eye of an unfortunate person within the hatpin’s radius. Back in those days, a deep puncture wound could easily lead to blood poisoning and death, and it did many times.
  2. Bringing feminism and freedom of movement for unaccompanied women into the mix, Segrave provides numerous examples of “masher/mashing” incidents and women forced into defending themselves with their hatpins. A little FYI: a masher was the term used for a man that paid unwanted attention to, intimidated, and/or touched women. Too cute of a term if you ask me. They were harassers and molesters. These incidences were written up in newspapers and the women praised for their use of the hatpin to defend themselves. In fact, Segrave provides examples of women witnessing other women being “mashed” and coming to their aid. The masher would find himself surrounded by hatpin wielding (some of these pins could reach 9″ in length or more), angry women. Mash his potatoes, ladies.
  3. Then there were the naughty ladies. The bad girls. The ones that the patriarchy would use as examples of why hatpins should be removed from women’s hats and thence their hands. We don’t want the ladies armed! It would come to the point of purposing legislation covered in Chapter 8. The felonious females would rob, threaten, and purposefully injure other people with their hatpins to get what they wanted. Hatpins were sometimes used as weapons by women in unions against scabs to persuade the scabs not to take their jobs. Less savory city women turned their hatpins on the police.

In chapter 7, Segrave touches on the hatpin issue in Europe. Germany seemed to take the most action compared to other European nations. Signage was the first line of defense against them, but to no avail. Then there were bans with fines and/or imprisonment, and compensation to the victims. Women were bounced off public transit for long, uncovered hatpins. Conductors could loose their jobs if they didn’t kick the offending women off their vehicles. In Sweden, conductors sold point protectors. Police would take names and addresses of the offenders so that they could be fined. In Hungary, police were ordered to simply confiscate the illegal pins. The church got involved. Altars were being blocked by the hats and crowded churches were a dangerous place to be because of the risk of injury. In England, they went the purse strings route: large damages were awarded when victims were injured by hatpins.

Chapter 8 is by far the longest chapter in the book; it covers the actions taken for and against the hatpin. Much time was spent discussing and attempting to legislate the use of the hatpin, including the rights of women to even own and use them. Their length was debated, as was the configuration of the tip. Some women seemed to be more concerned with the right to wear hatpins than with their right to vote. One of the arguments for the use of hatpins, above and beyond holding the hat to the wearer’s head, was to keep men in public physically at bay. The longer the hatpin, the farther away a man would have to stand to guarantee a sharp tip wouldn’t be swept across his face. Even some members of law enforcement had no problem with women taking matters into their own hands when it came to the defensive use of hatpins against mashers; less work for the cops. The hatpin was considered by some to be a concealed weapon. Others argued the hatpins were in plain sight and if you attacked a woman, she had the right to defend herself with whatever she had at hand. In an odd application, the Second Amendment was invoked to justify the wearing of hatpins by women, if the hatpins were in plain sight. Being visible, a ne’er-do-well should be deterred from approaching a woman with hatpins; he knows she has a means to defend herself. But some did not want women to be able to defend themselves physically.

It was left to the conductors to police the presence of hatpins on his transport, removing the woman if she did not comply. Many conductors would not do this. There were even so-called Beauty Squads in some locations: they were equipped with clippers and badges and would offer to alter your hatpins so that you would comply with the law; if not, they had the authority to arrest you.

Even though in some places police were issued special rulers to measure hatpins, many would not enforce the hatpin laws, like the conductors. Some suggested requiring the women to get a license for their hatpins. What were they to do? Some of the women were willing to possibly end up in jail for wearing the illegal hatpins (or wearing them in an illegal fashion) and some men were insisting that the lawmakers had to “Make the streets safe for men.” Women didn’t want to be restricted in their fashion choices and thought hatpins were quite handy in dealing with mashers and muggers, making the streets safer for women. They didn’t want their right to choose their style or right to protect themselves legislated away, particularly by men.

It comes down to the women having the right to choose versus the public safety and some men’s attitudes towards women having the means to defend themselves.

The tables had turned: some thought now the men were at risk from the women.

Throughout the book, Segrave offers up many examples on the topics he covers: mashers, offensive use of the hatpin by felonious women, how feminism used this as an example of men’s control over women’s choices, the ridiculous, privileges attitudes of the upper crust ladies regarding their wearing of dangerously long hatpins versus the safety of those around them, and many more.

Obviously, we don’t live under this “menace” anymore; what ended it? Fashion (turn to the right).

Women gave up wearing puffy petticoats and rib-crushing corsets. Women’s clothing hung more naturally to their bodies. Wearing a big hat then made the women look like lollipops– all head and no body. Hairstyles changed. Bobs were in, extra hair-doodads were out. The hat of choice now? Cloche. Didn’t need hatpins at all; fit right next to the head, neatly over the bob.

Problem solved, but no amount of signage, threats, fines, imprisonment, or damages paid could make it happen. Women choose not to wear the big hats and hatpins because they were passe; no modern woman would be caught dead in last season’s style.

Time passed, women got the vote, the 1st wave of feminism was in full swing, but it was back to square one with women’s safety with the hatpins removed from their hats and their hands.

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