Head dressing is an old custom, very old. In fact, in the Neolithic period man wore large straw hats to protect himself from the sun.
There aren’t many artefacts that have reached us, since they were made with perishable material, but we can find a good deal of proof in paintings, sculptures, mosaics, as well as coins and written documents.
The oldest material was wild animal hide, at first used in its natural state and then roughly tanned, cut and tied with laces that were thread through eyelets made with sharp bones.
In recent years, with the discovery of the Similaun man, we’ve been able to obtain a concrete example of “archaeological” hat.
Cotton, leather, silk and wool have always been elements that nature has offered man not only to protect the more delicate parts of the body, but at the same time, to maintain a constant body temperature.
It is only logical to conclude that the head was considered one of these sensitive areas.
Initially, headgear had a practical function.
It had to protect the head during battles and defend it from bad weather and the cold, but the boarder between the usefulness and the symbolic function of hats isn’t always clear.
“Hats exist because the need to preserve, even if only symbolically, the noblest part of man exists: the head and thus thought”. 1
As dwelling of the soul and life, the head takes on magical qualities from the dawning of prehistoric times.
For this reason, the gesture of covering one’s head expresses the need to protect this part of the body from hostile forces or highlighting it and giving it importance and visibility so as to call divine attention upon it.
In Ancient Roman tradition, any religious ritual or sacrifice had to be preformed velato capite i.e., with the head completely covered with the use of a toga corner. According to North American Indians, the medicine man’s hat had the power to deviate arrows, bows and bullets when worn in battle.
Made from Bison hide and having horns, it was the centre of attention in important Cheyenne ceremonies. Greek priests, and later Roman ones, wrapped their heads with infula during sacrifices. The bandaging was made of red and white wool ribbons similar to those used for the cardinal mitre, the original head dress of kings, and Persian dignitaries that reached the West by way of mysterious cults.
The Gales, who worshipped the goddess Cybele, wore a mitre with strips that draped over the shoulders. The Vestal virgins wore a tutulo, a conical sugarloaf shaped head dress that may be seen on
Etruscan statues such as that of the god Vertumnus. He is represented in a statuette that is preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Florence. The apex, a cap made from sacrificed animal hides, was worn in Rome by Flamin Dialis, a flamine that worshipped Jupiter.
Herodotus was already familiar with the tiara which was worn by the Iranian priests during sacrifices, while many monuments left us with representations of tall conical hats worn in Mesopotamia.
In biblical times, the Jewish probably wore ritual head dresses under the form of turbans or mitre hats similar to those of Assyrian Kings.
The recent custom of covering one’s head with a chippa conveys the idea of God’s presence on man’s head. For centuries, the Persian turban was a characteristic head dress of Islamic populations; Mohamed also traded turbans in Syria before his conversion. The mitre, tiara, skullcap, cap, and camauro are all forms of head dresses of Popes and high prelates of the Catholic Church.
In the council of Lyon of 1245, Innocent IV ordered the galerum as symbol of cardinal dignity. It was a cloth with wide edges, scarlet in colour, and with two lateral ropes having thirty red silk bows. We may certainly affirm that, in all cultures, head dresses are part of a “corporal code” which like other linguistic forms, serve to launch messages and to communicate.
It’s a symbolic representation that takes on multiple meanings: power, seduction and threat, as is in the case of helmets created to rouse fear, but also the belonging to a culture, a social sphere or a professional category.
History has often not given products of civilization and material culture the same value attributed to a scientific discovery or the same value of a work of art. And yet, every man-made object allows us to discover and read the world. As object, the hat portrays the role of absolute protagonist in the journey of discovery and conscience.
“Like many other objects that daily pass us by silently and non presumptuously on their level of presence in encyclopaedic knowledge, the hat is a complex symbol that needs to be drawn out of its anonymity”. 2
Stating that man’s history may be written by the history of his hats is not an understatement.
1. A .COLONETTI G. SASSI M.M. SIGIANI, Cosa ti sei messo in testa, Mazzotta, Milan, 1991, pg. 14
2. Ibidem, pg. 13