Anna Temby explores the fears aroused by that lethal item of female headwear – the hatpin – in federation Australia.
In the early twentieth century, hatpins replaced the corset as the deadliest item of women’s fashion. Bonnet-style hats, fastened under the chin by ribbon or elastic, began to fall from fashion, and ladies instead started securing their headwear with several long hatpins – sometimes up to 14 inches – pierced through one side of a hat and often protruding several inches out the other. Unlike corsets, which were damaging to the health of the wearer, hatpins were seen as a risk to the safety of others. The unguarded, protruding points had the potential to stab, jab or scratch unsuspecting passers-by.
Around 1911, reports of hatpin injuries began appearing in Australian newspapers with surprising regularity. There were reports of people receiving scratches to the face, losing eyes and even dying as the result of blood poisoning from relatively minor nicks and cuts. In Brisbane, a horse mistook one woman’s fashionable, floral headwear for fodder, and whilst attempting to take a nibble received a jab from her hatpin, causing the beast to careen wildly along Queen Street, creating havoc.
Several Australian cities began introducing municipal bylaws to restrict the wearing of these ‘dangerous’ hatpins in public spaces. But it was not just in Australia that this hatpin peril was being felt. Similar bylaws were also being introduced in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, and Switzerland. Prior to 1911 and the first introduction of the bylaws in Sydney, there is very few mentions of hatpin-related injuries in Australian newspapers – odd for something that, once it began being reported on, was immediately seen as such a prolific and pervasive threat.
It’s difficult to deny the hazard posed by hatpins – imagine sitting behind someone adorned with them on a jostling tram, or stuck in the post-show crush at the theatre – however there is much to suggest a more insidious purpose behind the enacted regulations. Alongside the reports of inadvertent injuries were suggestions that women were also ‘weaponising’ their hatpins with the intention to cause harm. Often this was done in self-defence, to deter the attentions of ‘mashers’ – a popular term for a man prone to making unwanted sexual advances on women.
These stories were shared in newspapers the world over, but the majority took place in the United States, where this new brand of feminine self-defence appeared to be far more common. The bawdy, music-hall ballad Never Go Walking Without Your Hatpin, rumoured to have originated around the 1920s but popularised by actor and singer Elsa Lanchester in the 1950s, decisively positions hatpins as instruments of feminine defence:
Never go walking out without your hat pin.
The law won’t let you carry more than that.
For if you go walking out without your hat pin,
You may lose your head as well as lose your hat.
Although humorous, the song also touches on darker issues of consent and sexual encounter:
In fact, it’s rumoured I might not have been,
If Mum had not gone out without her pin.
Never go out walking without your hatpin,
It’s about the best protection you have got.
For if you go out walking without your hatpin,
You may come home without your you-know-what!
The incident commonly seen as the ‘beginning’ of this new trend, took place in 1903 in New York City, when Kansan tourist Leoti Blaker boarded a crowded stagecoach and found herself being increasingly encroached upon by an elderly gentleman. When the man found the opportunity to place an arm across her lower back, a fed-up Blaker retrieved her foot-long hatpin from her head and drove it in the ‘meat’ of his arm. She later told magazine New York World that she was sorry to have hurt the man, but had heard many stories of the New York City mashers saying: ‘If New York women will tolerate mashing, Kansas girls will not.’
Blaker’s tale is just one of several similar stories arising out of the United States, and reported on in Australian newspapers. While the ability of women to ‘arm’ themselves may be absent from most official discussion of hatpin bylaws, the stories arising from the United States were deeply enmeshed in public discourse, particularly in the Australian printed press.
But were hatpins truly as much of a menace in Australia as in the United States? The entanglement of discourse makes it difficult to say definitively. While in the United States women’s use of hatpins in self-defence was widely reported, one of the few verifiable instances of it in Australia passed with scarcely a mention.
In 1912, during the Brisbane General Strike, eminent suffragette Emma Miller used a hatpin to stab the leg of Police Commissioner William Cahill (or his horse depending on which report you believe) after she and several other women were blocked from joining a street procession by a cavalry of mounted police. This story is only known through the report of the injured policeman to the Chief Secretary’s Department, and was not subject to public dissemination. Yet it must have been somewhat well-known because several years later the Queensland Figaro newspaper referred to an incident where ‘long pin “ladies” wreaked their wildcat vengeance on innocent horses’, though with no specific mention of Miller or the strike.
While the rhetoric surrounding the hatpin terror in Australia may have been slightly less inflammatory then much of the oppositional discourse in the United States, it’s almost more insidious as it was couched not in self-defence or justifiable violence, but instead in the wilful disregard for the safety of others demonstrated by women – a trait seen as most unbecoming and incongruous with notions of ideal femininity. With the exception of a Brisbane Courier reporter who sardonically commented that ‘the dexterity shown in the use of the hatpin’ led him to believe ‘some mastermind is training womankind in this civic warfare’, much of the criticism surrounding the wearing of oversized hatpins suggested a selfishness on the part of woman. As if women’s stubborn vanity in following the latest fashions made them completely blind to their responsibilities as the ‘gentler’ sex.
In 1912, a Sydney Morning Herald reporter described the hatpin restrictions in Sydney as women being ‘shorn of their privilege of spiking the unwary’. A Melbourne Age article actually appealed to feminine vanity in attempting to make women see the error of their ways saying, ‘A well-dressed woman would scorn to show their head bristling with unprotected pin points… this three or four inches of vicious looking steel is the badge of a careless dresser’.
It is worth noting that in much of the discourse the threat posed by hatpins it is most commonly discussed only in relation to the dangers to men. While it’s possible that the use of the term ‘men’ is intended to represent the all-encompassing ‘mankind’, the gendering of language is remarkably consistent across much of the public discourse – hatpins were a danger posed by women towards men, and occasionally children, but never to other women. The language denotes an underlying anxiety about the possibility of ‘armed’ women in their midst – capable of causing either purposeful or accidental injury.
The conclusion to this hatpin panic is an unfortunately anticlimactic one. Fashion is a fickle beast, and over the next few years hats and hat pins organically decreased in size and popularity, potentially aided by the onset of war and the ensuing austerity and shortage of metal. If the threat was as pervasive as some publications would have us believe, the bylaws represent municipal interference in one of very few ‘feminine’ dangers not couched in the morality of sexuality and respectability. The laws also speak to a much larger story regarding the situating of women in the public sphere at the turn of the century, in the throes of first-wave feminism and the ceaseless battle to not just exist within the public realm, but to do so comfortably, safely, and fashionably.
Anna Temby is a Ph.D. candidate and tutor at the University of Queensland researching the construction and contestation of public space in nineteenth-century Brisbane and the impact of governmental process in controlling public behaviour. She also works as a public historian and heritage consultant, specialising in intangible heritage and the social and cultural significance of heritage spaces and museum collections.
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