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The "It" Factor of the Fancy Fascinator

From classic occasion wear to “it” style accessory, the fascinator has long been a symbol of panache. Today, it’s been reinvented for the modern, fashion-forward woman.

By Marianna Cerini
November 22, 2021

What do British royal weddings, the Ascot race, and the boldest members of the street-style set have in common? Their fascination with the fascinator. Whether delicately tiny or gravity-defying, and whether starkly minimal or beautifully extravagant—but always, always crafted by hand—the headpiece is one of those accessories that’s immediately recognisable. It’s a sculptural piece of art that has been topping the heads of high-society ladies and the upper echelons of fashion for centuries. 

Bonnets covered with flowers from the Dior Héritage collection | Photo: Sølve Sundsbø

According to Merriam-Webster, the word was first introduced in 1750. The Fashion Dictionary described it as an oblong head covering “made of silk, lace or net, or of fine yarn knitted or crocheted”—in short, a scarf. However, the fascinator we think of today took shape in the 1950s, when tastemakers such as Audrey Hepburn and Zsa Zsa Gabor began adorning their beehive hairdos with feathers, a veil or a comb. During the era, John P John’s label, Mr John, became a household name in hats—and the New York-based milliner ultimately repurposed the term “fascinator” in the 1960s. 

Before that, a penchant for dashing headgear had been a constant of women’s fashion. In the 1920s, flappers embraced hair decorations and cloche hats with feathers on the side—not exactly fascinators, but similar in their intent. The ‘40s were marked by “doll hats”—miniature hats perched on the front of the forehead, which quickly became a fashion symbol of resistance in Europe against the austerity brought by the Nazi occupation. 

Garland of silk wildflowers from the Dior haute couture collection | Photo: Sølve Sundsbø

Once the modern fascinator entered the style circuit, it never left. In the 1980s and ‘90s, London-based milliners Stephen Jones (Dior’s official hat-maker) and Philip Treacy popularised the accessory in elite circles, attracting a clientele that included royalty such as Princess Diana and celebrities including Grace Jones and Kate Moss. Even Queen Elizabeth II took to the item. In 1999, the monarch wore a sassy feather-festooned fascinator to the wedding of her son, Prince Edward, and it continues as one of the accessories she most likes to wear on a special occasion.  

The ultimate endorsement for the modern-day fascinator came in 2011, when virtually every female guest at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s royal wedding sported an ostentatious headpiece in her hair—from Princess Beatrice in a custom curlicue-laden Philip Treacy piece to Victoria Beckham in a subtle navy pillbox hat. Sales of fascinators in the UK increased by some 300 percent following the nuptials. Across the pond in the US, ornate headwear also began rising, gracing the noggins of superstars from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga, as well as the couture shows from Chanel to Gucci. 

Photo: Awon Golding

In Asia, too, fascinators became the “it” item to flaunt at events such as the Emirates Singapore Derby and Hong Kong’s many international horse racing championships. A generation of young Asian milliners—from South Koreans Yooney Choi and Eun Young Lee to Hong Kong-born, London-based Awon Golding and Singaporean Chee Sau Fen – also began bringing their sensibilities and aesthetics to the fore through fabrics, colour and design inspiration. Paying homage to tradition and heritage while applying innovative techniques and multicultural experiences to the craft, these designers have been injecting a new point of view into the fascinator. 

For Rachel Trevor-Morgan, milliner to the Queen since 2006 and one of the most sought-after hat designers in the UK, the accessory’s enduring appeal isn’t at all surprising. “Headpieces like fascinators can add a touch of the theatrical to a formal look, making it more special and distinctive,” she says from her millinery in St James’s London. “They hold such great power because they have an almost transformative effect on what you’re wearing. A simple headband can lighten up a serious dress. A more intricate hat can help you make a big statement. They’re versatile pieces of high-fashion.” 

Photo: Piers Atkinson

Piers Atkinson, a contemporary milliner who’s among the new class of designers to reimagine the fascinator for the 21st century, agrees. “Fascinators are a more modern, wearable version of the classic hat—great for parties and showing off, but without any of the stiff formality that often surrounds occasion-wear,” he says. “They’re the bit that makes an outfit ‘extra’.” 

His designs are a case in point. Featuring everything from googly eyes and sparkly unicorns to cherries and Barbie dolls, they’re the kind of cutting-edge creations that you’d envision a contemporary style rebel putting on her head—and indeed, among his clients are names like Rihanna and Paloma Faith. As far as “extra” goes, they’re certainly that.  

Photo: Chanel

By contrast, Trevor-Morgan’s works are more classic and fully embrace the romanticism associated with traditionally feminine headwear. But she notes that’s what makes all fascinators interesting. “There’s not just one aesthetic when it comes to occasion hats,” she explains. “I like things that are soft and beautiful, while others might experiment more. There’s a lot of room for interpretation—and very little room to get bored.” 

Whether traditional or avant-garde, one thing is certain: fascinators are incredibly difficult to make. From dainty (usually small, brimless headpieces attached to the hair with a clip or comb) to oversized, and from veiled to feathery, these fanciful headdresses require incredible skills and craftsmanship, hours of millinery work and the finest of materials. “Even making a single beautiful spread of flowers can take over a day, as each element is carved by hand and assembled through techniques that have been around for centuries,” says Trevor-Morgan. 

That helps explain their timeless status in the realm of fashion. Headpieces and fascinators, as style editors will tell you, are not ephemeral items, but collectibles at the crossroads of art and couture. “We show ‘projects’ rather than seasonal collections,” confirms Atkinson. “I always think of our pieces as ‘crowns’ and our clients as queens or priestesses.” Neither, he notes, have ever been known for following fads.  

Starbright Straw “bibi” made by Stephen Jones for Dior | Photo: Sølve Sundsbø

Ultimately, fascinators are small but oh-so stylish ways to express oneself and play with fashion. “From their colour to their shape, they can reveal things about your character, push you out of your comfort zone and bring you that sort of excitement that regular hats just don’t have,” says Trevor-Morgan. “I like to think of them as a type of magic armour you put on – one that can make you feel comfortable in your skin, but also different and more daring.” 

Or, as Atkinson puts it, “They’re fun!” Which is perhaps the best way to sum up these whimsical, historically relevant, always chic statement headpieces. Hats off to that.