There were many things I found odd at first and then grew to love during the 12 years I spent in Britain: Pimm’s, summer pudding, wellies. However, the one thing I could never quite get my head round – or under, to be exact – was the fascinator: those inexplicable quasi-hats that are more like the idea of a hat than any meaningful headgear. Perhaps, I thought, they are a cultural step too far; a social signifier that a Yankee can never penetrate; the final proof I am from a different gene pool of dresser.
But I no longer have to puzzle over this because the dress-code doyens of Ascot have forbidden fascinators in the royal enclosure. Specifically, “Hats should be worn; a headpiece which has a base of 4in (10cm) or more in diameter is acceptable as an alternative to a hat.”
Four inches may not seem like much – the length of the average BlackBerry – but it’s longer than most fascinators. And though the rabble can wear a mere 2in or 3in head decoration outside the royal enclosure, the fact that most of the style-setters from whom we take our cues will be inside – including that erstwhile fan of the fascinator, the Duchess of Cambridge, whose recent appearance with a giant red rose sprouting from the side of her head has added yet another surge to sales – suggests we shall soon see a downward slope of the demand curve.
It’s about time. In the biology of fashion, as in biology in general, there is no permanent place for the purely decorative. After all, what is a fascinator for? They provide no sun protection. The argument usually proffered is that unlike hats, they don’t muss the hair, since they are generally attached with a few bobby pins. At the same time, unlike hats, you can’t take them off and put them back on because of those self-same pins, so you walk around inside and out in the same bizarre headgear. In researching this, I learnt that other arguments in the fascinators’ favour are that they are very light – but so are many hats now thanks to new millinery technology – and that they don’t require big boxes. I guess, in modern life, storage counts, but it seems most homes can accommodate a hatbox or two.
I have never felt a need to support the fashion world unequivocally, to defend obviously silly clothing such as knickerbockers, mules, kitten heels (women should never wear any items named after baby animals) or drop-crotch trousers. If someone has a bad idea for clothing that somehow makes it on to the shop floor, it should be named and shamed as soon as possible before people start buying it. Otherwise you risk ... well, women putting arsenic on their faces, as they did in the 1800s to improve their complexion, the hobble skirt (how is it that we think foot binding is barbaric but leg binding is OK?) and, yes, the fascinator.
So what is the origin of this sartorial species? According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, what we consider fascinators are not fascinators at all: they are derivatives of the cocktail hat as created in the 1960s, when no normal hat could fit over a back-combed beehive, and they are largely the invention of contemporary milliners Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy. Real fascinators developed in the late 19th century, and were “a lace or crocheted head shawl secured to the crown or hairline that draped down over the back of the head as far – or even farther – than the shoulders”. Somewhere between then and now, however, things got very confused.
In the race to out-milliner the woman next door, fascinators have become towering temples of absurdity. The best fashion always walks a line between good taste and bad, but lose your balance for a moment, and kit turns into kitsch.
For proof, look no further than the controversy-provoking number Sarah Jessica Parker wore to the London premiere of Sex and the City in 2008: an acorn top, sprouting a tower of roses and butterflies and feathers that added feet to her height and provoked great debate in the blogosphere about whether she was “daring” or just “ridiculous”. Either way, it seemed clear that part of the point of the headgear was to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and to nod to an English tradition. However, if Hollywood has now reached the stage that it thinks the way to demonstrate awareness is by sticking a botanic appendage on a head, it’s probably time for a change. Rest in peace, silly headgear.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman