The sou’wester was originally a seaman’s protective hat of waterproof oilskin or leather. The traditional sou’wester tied under the chin and had a deep crown and flaring brim (often longer in the back) that provided shelter from the elements.
It made its way into women’s fashion via the semi-functional yachting and outing hats of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In later decades, the fashion hats inspired by the original silhouette did so within the prevailing style of their time.
For example, the sou’wester of the 1920s (created by designers such as Agnes and Molyneux) might be a close-fitting cloche, brimless in front but hanging down to wrap the neck in back, or it might be one which, while it stopped at the nape of the neck in back, deeply hooded the face with an enormous, flaring brim.
In the mid-1930s, the sou’wester-style brim on one saucy little hat shaded the eyes with just a few inches dipping down from the shallow crown. The sou’wester-inspired hats of the mid to late 40s had wide brims, which rolled or were pinned back from the forehead. The early 1950s sou’wester profile brim prettily framed — and fully exposed — the face.
The true heyday of the sou’wester as a fashion hat was the 1960s. Hats with exaggerated sou’wester proportions (from designers such as Mr. John and Lanvin) appeared in 1960, and floppy felt versions stretched into the 1970s. But it was Pierre Cardin’s 1961 spring collection that launched the oversized sou’wester as the decade’s iconic hat. He showed sou’westers with almost all his ensembles, in a wide variety of materials including black straw and pink tulle. Other designers followed his lead until almost the end of the decade.
Early on, they were made in straws and fabrics such as silk, velvet, and corduroy. Later, they were made of Space Age materials such as aluminum foil (in a beach ensemble with matching bikini), and patent vinyl. The sou’wester had essentially come full circle, back to a hat used for rain protection — if far more stylishly, and this time with a see-through “window” in the enormous brim.
Written by CMPollack