To find the modern hat’s true ancestor, we have to go back to the Middle Ages when the cloak, a sort of cape with a hood called capperuccia, was worn by men and woman as well as monks and clergy.
Medieval vocabulary defines it as: vestis species qua viri laici mulieres laicae monachi et clerici induebantur. Even if it is difficult not to put cloak in relation with the Latin caput, ‘the head’, we have to consider that it originally enveloped not only the head, but the body as well.
The use of the cloak was first sanctioned by the authors Isidore of Seville and Gregory of Tours. In modern Italian, the word cloak is present only in figurative expressions such as “cloak and dagger”, or as a derivative in the augmentative “cappotto” (meaning coat), but historically the term was very wide spread in Neo Latin languages where it is present today in the name of many headdresses. The word is also found in the Early Medieval German kappa, in the Greek-Byzantine kappa, and in the ancient Hungarian kepa.
In late Latin, the term cloak takes on the meaning of hood to indicate a head dress that could have been removed from the cape and worn separately. Hoods were very common for a very long time. In Medieval cities almuzi hoods were worn in various manners and with one end resting on a shoulder.
The word cappellus, diminutive of cappa, was used up to the 15th Century and initially indicated a velvet or felt hood tied under the chin. The individual wealth of a person was highlighted by the value of the materials used to make it, such as fur, embroidery and precious stones. Instead, the less fortunate wore simple hoods with the sole intention of protecting themselves from bad weather. In order to talk about hats as we know them, we have to reach the 14th Century when head dresses with brims made their stunning debut in society.
In Felt, straw or cloth, the hat is no longer needed simply to protect the head, but becomes a fashion accessory with which the noble classes unleash their vanity. It is at this point, when we move away from the simple function of covering and move towards a more aesthetical role, that we can start talking about hat culture.
The Crusca vocabulary defines the hat a “blanket for the head made in its shape and encircled at its base by a part of itself which is called brim or fold”. Like many other dictionaries, this leads us to believe that the necessary characteristic for a head dress to be defined hat is that it be endowed with a brim. Without it, we enter the vast and varied world of caps, with the tip pulled back and having a flat or round shape.
While the name gender was item of debate for linguistics, the etymology instead was unanimously allowed to reach the Latin term Birrus – a flat hood endowed with a visor that reached Rome from Persia and was modified from its original form of skull cap with ear laps.
Even the birrus was usually worn with the cape. In 13th Century common Latin, we find the word biretum which was introduced in the 1300’s in Italian, most likely through the Provençal beret. In Venice the red velvet version was a prerogative of the Doges.
Aside from the diatribes of philological nature, we can say that in head dress history the berets and caps had a parallel development but not identical.
The term berretto usually refers to a slanted head dress, with or without frontal brim, similar to a beret. The zucchetto also belongs to the berretti family. It was spherical, having the shape of a pumpkin, and was worn by nobles and ecclesiastical authorities up to the 14th Century. The Medieval berretti made of cloth or fabric, were sometimes reinforced by steel scales which were sewn inside in order to shield from unexpected blows. So were the Milanese magliate of the 13th Century.
The berretta primarily indicates a rigid head dress composed of three or four sections with a tassel that evolved in the Middle Ages among the cultured classes and the ecclesiastical hierarchies. The felt berretta that was very much in fashion was yellowish. The tocco was a red berretta used by the Florentines who wore it with the brim turned upside-right almost embracing the head like a crown.
The shape of the black berretta continues to be used in courtrooms by judges and lawyers. The distinction between cap and hat had to be quite sharp because in the 1500’s two distinct guilds existed: the cappers and the hatters, who often fought each other because at that time caps were worn more than hats and the cappers demanded their privileges.
The hatters on their part were divided into wool hatters and felt hatters. Elaborated hats bought in France began to spread in the 14th Century along with hoods and caps. They were wide brimmed, made of straw and lined with silk, made of beaver fur or cloth and used as a symbol of prestige or power.
Gothic influence is felt even in clothing accessories. Hats with sharp ends were coordinated with long pointed shoes called à la poulaine. Wide brimmed hats were used as umbrellas; they were made of beaver furs or wool, and lined straw in the summer.