Modern Millinery Etiquette

  The etiquette of wearing hats during the Summer Season is a social minefield. Does a lady take ever take her hat off at lunch during a society wedding? What do you say to a handsome date who fails to remove his top hat when encountering friends outside the club tents at Royal Ascot? Is there a ‘correct’ time of year for wearing straw hats? 

  In most cases, people are not being naff or rude if they contravene the fashion rules. They just don’t know any better. Although people are brought up in England to leave tips in their bedroom after country house weekends and in America, know not to wear white shoes after Labor Day, few know the rules about millinery fashion and form. 

    Which is why I have been asked to give a talk on fashion and millinery etiquette at the South Kensington Club and will be available for advice at my exclusive millinery Pop Up at Selfridge’s running in May before Royal Ascot where you can ask me your fashion dilemmas in person. As a society milliner who has been part of the official Royal Ascot Millinery Collective and also makes bespoke hats for royalty and fashion stars like Elizabeth Hurley, I'm often asked for advice on hat wearing. 

      People usually think that it's enough to know that the general rule is 'hats off indoors for men' and 'hats on indoors for ladies'. But the etiquette for both sexes is not as simple as that. According to various wedding etiquette guides, for example, ladies are meant to take their cue from the ‘Mother of the Bride’ when it comes to the correct moment for removing hats at the Wedding Breakfast (which is actually lunch or dinner). 

But what happens if the Mother of the Bride decides that she doesn't want to take it off at all during lunch? Is it the height of rudeness to disappear off into the ladies loo only to emerge sans hat? I often see friends removing their hat in the loo, freshening their make-up, and then emerging with hat in hand, all ready to enjoy flirting with the man seated next to them. You can hardly blame any girl for removing their hat once the wedding formalities are over. Leaning across over the pavlova  (I'll get onto kissing in a moment) to make eye contact with a man whilst wearing a wide-brimmed hat is neither easy nor effective as a flirting technique. 

     The answer, according to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, an authority on millinery etiquette, is that any etiquette guide that says it is acceptable to take off one's hat inside - at any time - is simply wrong. The golden rule to remember is that the only time an English lady ever takes her hat off inside in ‘in her bedroom’.  At a wedding, the Mother of the Bride should never take her hat off during lunch, dinner, or at any other time. 

    Now onto another of my favourite subjects. When to wear what? The authority on the subject here is that arbiter of French elegance and style Genevieve Antoine Dariaux who writes in her brilliant little 1964 fashion stylebook, A Guide To Elegance, that ‘Straw hats may be worn from the first of February until the first of September; velvet from the first of August until the first of February; fur from the first of October until the first of March; felt, tulle and veiling can be worn all year around’. 

    I love veiling and recently wore one of my new veiled butterfly hats to the wedding party of Masterchef TV judge Wiliam Sitwell and the Hon Emily Lopes. Although a little out of fashion at the moment, veiling is, as Dariaux notes in her guide (‘For every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed’ ) ‘one of the most flattering of feminine adornments…a veil is always a dressy accessory’ and adds a layer of mystery to fashion style. Veils should not really be worn before 5 pm. The size of the veil should reflect the wearer’s personality. Thus a ‘femme fatal’ can stress her seductive powers with a heavier and more cloak-like veil whereas the younger and more innocent girl might prefer a ‘fine misty froth of tulle’. The chicest veiling is always black. 

   Kissing – even blow kissing across the lawn in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot - whilst wearing a hat is another tricky area. Whilst it's generally known that men should always remove their top hats (always hold the hat with the inside lining facing inwards) when talking to a lady, or 'doff' their hat if just saying 'hello' or 'excuse me' or so on, what is the kissing etiquette for two acquaintances who encounter each other outside a church at a wedding ? Or should you just stick to air kissing? 

     The trouble with kissing in hats is that hats were never intended to be an instrument of sexual negotiation or affection. Rather the opposite. The origins of hat tipping was a feudal gesture which originated with chivalric knights lifting their face visors (still a millinery term) before a tournament to show that they were indeed who they claimed to be in the interests of keeping knightly tournaments a gentlemanly business. 

    When knights no longer jousted in helmets, this visor lifting became part of the military salute. It was a sign of respect - in the same way that Jewish ladies can wear dress hats in a synagogue. In the Edwardian era, which was the setting for Cecil Beaton's famous My Fair Lady Royal Ascot 1964 film scene, it would have been unthinkable for anybody in the Enclosure to try kissing in public – even a peck on the cheek was considered risqué. 

   My advice is if you are wearing a wide-brimmed hat at Royal Ascot - such as a variation on the pink silk organza hat with Bell Epoque soft frills as worn by Audrey Hepburn - is to cut out any public kissing as it is just so physically tricky. 

    The whole concept of doffing one's hat (which comes from the Middle English word 'doffen', meaning to 'to do off') was that it was a polite and reverential gesture that amounted to the 18th and 19th century equivalent of the modern air-kiss. 

   It makes no logic or sense to attempt to kiss a man whilst he doffs his hat as when a man doffs his hat to a lady he is effectively air kissing anyway. If the girl is wearing a fascinator, or pillbox hat (made famous by Roy Halston Frowick as designed for Jackie Onassis in 1961), kissing on the cheek - in the Mediterranean style - is both acceptable and considerably easier.  

   The truth is that whilst there are rules for hat wearing, they have always been in flux. France in the 19th century had one of the most rigid social class structures in Europe.  Yet if men were not meant to wear hats 'indoors' why do you see so many apparently fashionable and wealthy men wearing hats inside restaurants and theatres like the Moulin Rouge and in cafe society paintings by Toulouse-Latrec?  

   The social answer is purely practical. In a heaving Paris bar or bistro - which was regarded as a public (outdoor) space, as opposed to a private house - leaving your hat on a seat was an invitation to thieves. Only the smartest of restaurants or hotels had 'cloakrooms', so if you took your hat off, you'd probably never see it again. Doubtless the same applies today, even inside the Royal Enclosure at Ascot where if you leave your hat lying around on a seat at an outdoor champagne bar you'll be lucky to see it again. 

      So here are my top 5 social tips for both men and women to avoid looking gauche, rude and generally being a walking social embarrassment at a traditional summer Season event. Anybody wanting to learn more, can come to my South Kensington Club millinery fashion talk, or write to me via my website (www. with your millinery etiquette questions. 

1) Q: What does one do if the 'Mother of the Bride' removes her hat 'inside' at a wedding 'breakfast'? 

Ignore her. Mothers of the Bride should know better and set an example by having their hat clamped to their head all day. 

2)  When should gentleman remove their top hats at weddings or racing?  

For men, it's considered seriously faux to be seen eating indoors wearing a hat, especially when 'inside' a building, hotel or a marquee. At Royal Ascot, you take off your hat the moment you enter a tent like White's club and hand your hat to a cloakroom attendant (tip them at least £10 at the end of the day's racing, as you will probably have handed it back and forth six times). Do not even think about trying to walk anywhere outside in the Royal Enclosure without wearing your hat. You will be ejected. 

3) What other occasions should men take off their hats? 

For the playing of the National Anthem, when there is a flag raising ceremony and during funerals and in public lifts and Christian churches. 

4) I've heard that socially chic ladies should never wear a 'brimmed hat' after 5pm, a fashion that dates back to the idea that ladies don't need a brim after sunset just as an East Coast society girl in America knows to never wears 'white' after Labor Day. Is there any truth in this rumour? 

I’ve never seen The Duchess of Cambridge in a wide-brimmed hat at an afternoon society wedding. If it's a 4 pm wedding or later, stick to a pillbox or button shape hat. 

5) According to several etiquette guides, there is a millinery rule that if a woman ever wears a baseball cap, Panama, Stetson, boater, or any other male or unisex-style hat, they should also obey all the 'indoor hat removing' rules as applied to men. Is this right or wrong? 

The millinery gospel according to Julian Fellowes is that a lady should never remove her Panama-style hat at any time, and especially not when she sits down for lunch in the Duke of Richmond's Box at Goodwood. This rule particularly applies to anybody wearing my pink check ribbon straw boater (as featured on the cover of Sunday Times Style) which I designed with an extra wide girly brim. This pink 'canotier' - the French word for boater - should only ever be removed in the boudoir. 

Laura Cathcart’s talk on Millinery Etiquette at The South Kensington Club, Harrington Road, SW7, is at 6.30 pm on Wednesday, 18th April. For more info see