16th century

Hats, Headwear and Masculinity in Sixteenth-Century Europe

Jean Clouet, Francis I, King of France, c.1530, Louvre, INV 3256. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the sixteenth century headwear mattered. Not only was headwear practical and sheltered the wearer from the elements such as the sun, rain or wind, but these garments also participated in a complex social system of etiquette that defined displays of status, power and masculinity. The most common style of hat worn by men during the first half of the sixteenth century was referred to in multiple languages as a bonnet (see image of Francis I, above). Bonnets were generally characterised by a large continuous brim that folded up, and for elite men they were commonly made of dark silk velvet.[1] Caps on the other hand referred to softer, less structured headwear made from knitted wool or silk, with a small brim or no brim at all. One of the most common types of caps was a flap cap that has a flat crown “combined with a very narrow, flat brim” (see image of Charles V, below).[2]

Renaissance understandings of the head mirrored those of antiquity where the classical body “emphasized the head as the seat of reason” and during the Renaissance amateur political theorists “made much of the fact that the head governed the body.”[3] Husbands were also portrayed through bodily analogies as “the head of his wife’s body.”[4] This is because the male body, being the more perfect body was also believed to be “endowed with greater reason” and therefore more adept for leadership.[5] In these contexts head was synonymous with leadership and power, particularly male power. Headwear was therefore a very important part of male dress as it helped to focus these ideas of social and political power, and as “extensions of the body and particularly of the head” these garments “were jammed with overlapping meanings, connoting authority, rationality, and even charismatic spiritual power.”[6] Nowhere was this more obvious than through the use of crowns that signified a monarch’s authority as the head of state, or through the use of religious headwear, such as the beret of the Venetian doge, which “concentrated the essence of both their institutional authority and their charismatic holiness.”[7] Consequently, headwear, from crowns to religious berets, and even military helmets, usually signified male power and authority in a wide range of situations during the sixteenth century, and communities that could read and interpret these visual signals were constructed.

Titian, Portrait of Charles V, 1548, Alte Pinakothek, 632. Source: Wikimedia

As Penelope J. Corfield has explored in her work on hat honour, everyday items such as hats were highly visible, effective and a “very personal means of communication” during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was no different in sixteenth-century Europe, as a very structured system of etiquette and courtesy had begun to emerge.[8] Importantly, men’s headwear, unlike women’s which was generally immobile in the form of hoods and elaborate headdresses, lent itself to “expression through movement… Aggression, defiance, salutation, respect, submission, entreaty, and emotion were readily conveyed” through gestures such as adorning, touching, taking off or carrying at hat.[9] Refusing to take off headwear could send a very clear signal such as resisting authority, giving even a “powerless individual some scope for bold personal expression.”[10] Not taking off one’s hat to a figure of authority was such a grave offence that men who could not show their heads applied for licences to exempt them from these social conventions. In May 1523 John Conway of Flintshire in England was granted a licence to “wear his bonnet at all times and in all places, on account of disease in the head.”[11] Thus what a man did, or did not do, with his headwear in social situations mattered in sixteenth-century Europe. It is therefore unsurprising that ambassador accounts from the period constantly noted down in correspondence what men were doing with their headwear in various diplomatic situations.

While the sumptuous fabrics and jewels used to make the headwear of male elites proclaimed their social status, the doffing of headwear to one’s superior – whether that be a son to a father, a young man to an elder or a subject to a king – also demonstrated status and acknowledged deference. Diplomatic situations called for specific types of male hat etiquette. Ambassadors did not have to bear their heads in front of foreign monarchs, as they symbolically represented their King.[12] This was demonstrated in 1536 when the Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to report on his time in England. He reported that Tuesday after Easter he had been invited to meet Henry VIII at Greenwich palace where “the King came out and gave me a very kind reception, holding for some time his bonnet in his hand, and not allowing me to be uncovered longer than himself; and after asking how I was, and telling me that I was very welcome, he inquired of the good health of your Majesty and showed himself very glad to hear good news.”[13] In this scene, Henry’s insistence that Chapuys not be uncovered any longer than he was a sign of esteem for Charles V, as he treated Chapuys as he would have done the Emperor. Later in 1539 the English ambassadors Thomas Wriothesley and Edward Carne also reported to Henry VIII that when they had met Mary of Hungary to discuss the matter of Henry’s possible marriage to her niece Christina of Denmark. In their correspondence they wrote that they “Were yesterday towards night sent for to speak with the Queen” where they found her in her council chamber with her chief secretaries. There she “made us sit down and put on our caps, and addressed us, reminding us how, when there arose a difficulty in the late negotiations, we agreed to refer to the King and she to the Emperor…”[14] The gendered dynamics in this scene are particularly telling of the powerplays that could take place during the observance of male headwear etiquette. The English ambassadors had removed their caps as was the custom when meeting women. However, as Mary was both a Queen and governor of the Low Countries acting on behalf of her brother the Holy Roman Emperor, custom dictated that they did not need to do so. Mary’s instance that they put their caps back sent a clear message: the Queen viewed Henry VIII as her equal, and so his ambassadors should remain covered after their initial gesture of respect, as they would have done if she were the Emperor.

Taddeo Zuccari, True of Nice, c. 16th century. Francis I meets Charles V. Source: Wikimedia.

If remaining uncovered was a sign of deference to a superior, taking off a hat on and off was a gesture of respect. At the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 as it was reported that Henry VIII and Francis I “embraced each other two or three times on horseback, bonnet in hand; then dismounting embraced again.”[15] French accounts of this event were also observant of what each monarch did with his hat as they noted that they “embraced, bonnets in hand, and made a grand gesture of love.”[16] Similar scenes were also common with the Holy Roman Emperor and his diplomatic affairs. When Charles V met with his brother-in-law Francis I in 1539, the “Emperor doffed his hat and the King his cap, and they embraced three or four tim~es and went forward to the stair of the lodging…”[17] On these occasions, the removal of a bonnet not only indicated respect for one another, but also for the status of each monarch. They were equals, both renaissance princes. Thus, it was important that they both took off their hats and placed them back on at the same time. The customs dictating the use of sixteenth-century male headwear therefore gave men a conspicuous non-verbal everyday language that could convey emotion, intent, respect and reverence.

This blog post was adapted from my journal article ‘Adorning Masculinities? The Commissioning and Wearing of Hat Badges during the Habsburg-Valois Italian Wars‘ in Sixteenth Century Journal, which is out now! 
This research was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant
(DP180102412) held at The University of Western Australia.



[1] Ruth Matilda Anderson, Hispanic costume, 1480-1530 (New York: Hispanic Society of America, 1979): 35-37; Maria Hayward, “‘The Sign of Some Degree’?: The Financial, Social and Sartorial Significance of Male Headwear at the Courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI”, Costume 36, no.1 (2002): 6.

[2] Maria Hayward, Rich apparel: Clothing and the Law in Henry VIII’s England (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2009), 122; Anderson, Hispanic costume, 35; Hayward, “The Financial, Social and Sartorial Significance of Male Headwear”, 2.

[3] Carolyn Springer, Armour and Masculinity in the Italian Renaissance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 32; Sharon T. Strocchia, Death and Ritual in Renaissance Florence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 41.

[4] Alexandra Shepard, Meanings of manhood in early modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 76.

[5] Ulinka Rublack, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 20.

[6] Strocchia, Death and Ritual in Renaissance Florence, 41.

[7] Ibid., 41.

[8]Penelope J. Corfield, “Dress for Deference and Dissent: Hats and the Decline of Hat Honour”, Costume 23, no. 1 (1989):  64.

[9] Corfield, “Dress for Deference and Dissent’, 68.

[10] Corfield, “Dress for Deference and Dissent’, 64.

[11] “Henry VIII: May 1523, 16-31”, in J.S. Brewer, ed., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 3, 1519-1523 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1867), 1273-1287.

[12] Corfield, “Dress for Deference and Dissent’, 71.

[13] “Henry VIII: April 1536, 21-25”, in James Gairdner, ed., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, January-June 1536 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1887), 287-310.

[14] “Letters and Papers: February 1539, 21-25,” in Gairdner and Brodie, 1894, 129-43.

[15] “Henry VIII: June 1520”, in J.S. Brewer, ed, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 3, 1519-1523 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1867), 299-319

[16]  Théodore Godefroy, Le Cérémonial françois… (A Paris, chez Sébastien Cramoisy, imprimeur ordinaire du Roy, & de la Reyne régente et Gabriel Cramoisy, 1649), 738.

[17] “Letters and Papers: December 1539, 11-15”, in James Gairdner and R H Brodie, eds., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 14 Part 2, August-December 1539 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1895), 243-255.

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