Most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in a two-foot tall pointed hat outside of Halloween. Large conical headgear is not likely to walk the unironic runway anytime soon. However, there have been several moments throughout history in which tall conical hats have been fashionably worn as symbols of power and magic. Elsewhere and at a different time, these hats have been used as a method of humiliation for disgraced criminals. How and why have so many different cultures attributed different meanings to the same shape?
Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Before 1000 BC, during the Bronze Age, priests would wear golden conical hats that stood up to 88cm tall. These hats were decorated with sun and moon symbols, indicating that their wearers were star-trackers who were able to analyse the sky to predict the weather. Because of their meteorological ability, the priests were referred to as “king-priests” and were thought to have magical powers. Wilfried Menghin, director of the Berlin Museum, says that king-priests “would have been regarded as Lords of Time who had access to a divine knowledge that enabled them to look into the future”. It is from this early use of conical hats that led to the traditional star-spangled wizard’s hat that we recognise in costumes today.
However, magic isn’t the only ancient iteration of large conical hats. In 2000, archaeologists uncovered a 4000-year old grave in present-day China and found bodies that had been perfectly preserved by the cool, dry conditions of their desert tomb. Two of the corpses still had on two-foot-long black felt conical hats with flat brims and were dubbed by the archaeologists as the “witches of Subeshi”. While we might interpret this ancient headgear as witchy, in Central Asia 400 BCE, the hat’s tall extravagance signified high social status. In fact, Mongolian warrior women wore felt hats, known as boqtas, that could reach up to seven feet tall. The higher the rank of the warrior, the more elaborate and lofty her boqta.
A few centuries later, however, the conical hat took on a different meaning in Europe. During the Spanish Inquisition from 1478 to 1834, men and women who were arrested for heresy were forced to wear a paper conical hat, called a capirote, as sign of public humiliation. The different colours of the capirote denoted the different punishments that were awarded: for example, people sentenced to execution would wear a red capirote. To this day, Catholic penitants in Spain wear fabric versions of the capirote to hide their faces and indicate their contrition.
This expression of social status through hats wasn’t unique to Central Asia either. Noble European women of the Medieval ages were very much inspired by Mongolian women’s boqtas when wearing the popular hennin, colloquially known today as a “princess hat”. While the Mongolian boqta sat directly on top of its wearer’s head, the English hennin sat towards the back of the head and was more distinctly conical shaped. The hennin was also remarkably less glamorous than its six-foot tall counterpart: Historian Jack Weatherford writes, “with no good source of peacock feathers, European noblewomen generally substituted gauzy streamers flowing in the wind at the top.”
In England during the 1800s, conical hats were also being used for humiliation. Victorian schools had started the noble tradition of making struggling students wear Dunce hats and stand in the corner of the classroom while the rest of the class jeered. The Dunce hat, a tall pointed hat inscribed with the letter D, is extremely rarely used as a form of modern discipline, although the “dunce corner” was prohibited in English schools as recently as 2010.
The origin of the Dunce hat is widely debated, but many ascribe it to a Scottish-born philosopher named John Duns Scotus, who lived in the 1200s. Scotus used metaphysics to argue for the existence of God and believed that humans had two forms: one’s physical body and one’s spiritual form, or soul. By wearing a conical hat, Scotus believed that humans could act as a metaphysical funnel for knowledge and that wisdom would flow through the tip of the hat and spread down into the brain. Conical hats were therefore worn by the followers of his teachings, who called themselves “Dunsmen”. However, as philosophy developed in England in the 1500s, Scotus’ teachings became outdated in favour of Humanist thought. The Dunsmen were shunned for their views and the Dunsmen’s conical hats became symbols of their perceived idiocy: creating the Dunce Hat.
Nowadays, we still use large conical hats as symbols of foolishness. During Mardi Gras in some parts of Louisiana, partygoers will wear a capuchon, a tall conical hat specifically intended to make fun of the European hennin. Even when we dress up as wizards and witches on Halloween, the aim is not to evoke the power and magic of the conical hat, but to have a bit of fun on a night out. But who knows what haute couture might come up with next?! Maybe we should look out for skyscraper silhouettes at this year’s London Fashion Week.