Hatpins were designed to hold a women’s hat in place. However, in the hands of a damsel in distress, the hatpin became one of the deadliest fashion accessories in history. Hatpins became fashionable in the eighteenth century when puffy, over the top hairstyles required a pin to fix a ladies hat in place. During the nineteenth century elaborately decorated and jewelled pins were in fashion.
These included heads made of glass, china, pearl, silver, jade, jet, semi-precious stones and on occasions, gold and diamonds. The mass produced white or black bead on a pin was the basic ‘working girl’ hatpin. The popularity of hatpins resulted in a spin-off industry for hatpin cases, boxes, trays and holders. Towards the end of the nineteenth century novelty hatpins with animal, bird, flower or figural decorations became popular.
Hatpins however had another darker use. Newspaper articles of the time report on women using their hatpins to stab their assailant in the arm, slash him in the face, or otherwise threaten to kill him. In a 1903 self-defence manual by Mademoiselle Gelas, women are instructed on how to use their hatpin as a weapon against an attacker. By 1908, laws were passed in America to limit the length of hatpins, as there was a concern that suffragettes might use them as weapons during their protest actions. Also by the 1910s, regulations were passed requiring that the protruding tips be covered so as not to injure people accidentally. Various covers were made, but poorer women often had to make do with pieces of potato or cork.
Hatpins peaked in popularity between the 1890s and 1920s. Their popularity started to wane around World War I (1914-1918), when metals became scarce and hats became smaller.
Collecting hatpins remain popular and prices can vary from as little as twenty rand up to three thousand rand. Collectors are interested in specialised hatpins, including hallmarked hatpins, hatpins that serve vanities, opera hatpins, and compact hatpins that have a mirror and a powder puff. Amethyst and pearls are very popular, as well as Plique-à-Jour enamel. Hatpin holders are also sought after.
The National Museum has a large selection of hatpins in our textile collection.
Text: Sudre Havenga l Collections Manager l National Museum