Hats Off to the Tri-Corner Hat

Today’s post comes from Marisa Hawley, intern in the National Archives Strategy and Communications office.

As part of the “six weeks of style” celebration to recognize the Foundation for the National Archives’ partnership with DC Fashion Week, we are showcasing fashion-related records from our holdings. This week’s fashion theme is the Revolutionary War: Fashion during America’s Fight for Freedom

Perhaps one of the most iconic—and easily recognized—pieces of clothing from the colonial era is the tri-corner hat, or more simply known as the tricorn. Although the style originated in Europe, it is now associated with the American Revolutionary War and our nation’s fight for freedom.

St. Leger, Barry (bust). (National Archives Identifier 530964)
St. Leger, Barry (bust). (National Archives Identifier 530964)

In 17th-century America, hats with tall crowns and wide brims, like the steeple hats worn by the Puritans, started to go out of style. They were thought to spoil the appearance of and look precarious atop a wig, which was the newest fashion trend for men at the time.

The tri-corner, however, had three sides of the brim turned up, either pinned or buttoned in place to form a triangle around the wearer’s head—“like a mince pie,” to quote the vernacular of the time. This style then allowed the wearer to show off his latest wig fashion underneath, and thus his social status.

Also, the tricorn was smaller in size due to the folded brim and was more easily tucked under the arm when entering a building, a gesture that displayed the proper social etiquette of the time.

Jones, John Paul (bust), 1781. (National Archives Identifier 512987)
Jones, John Paul (bust), 1781. (National Archives Identifier 512987)

The style of the tricorn ranged from the very simple to extravagant hats embellished with feathers and trim. Hat brims themselves could also be left plain or dressed with a variety of trims. Although the most common trim was a worsted wool hat braid in black or white, there were also brocades, metallic, and silk trims in various colors depending on personal preference. Black, grey, and “tobacco,” or tan, were popular choices for the hat’s body color.

At the height of its popularity, the tricorn hat was worn by not only the aristocracy but also by common civilians and members of the military. It was typically made of animal fiber and fashioned with the point facing forward.

For soldiers who often rested a musket or rifle on their left shoulder, however, the tricorn was usually worn with the front corner directly above their left eyebrow for better clearance. The most common military version had a brim of five inches in the back and four inches in the front.

Washington, George, the Virginia Colonel (3/4 length), 1772. (National Archives Identifier 532861)
Washington, George, the Virginia Colonel (3/4 length), 1772. (National Archives Identifier 532861)

On August 20, 1776, supreme commander Gen. George Washington issued general orders that included instructions detailing the use of cockades. A cockade is a rosette, feather, or knot of ribbon usually worn on a hat as part of a uniform or as a badge of office.

At the time, the Continental Army did not have a uniform, and these cockades served as identification among military personnel. Field officers were to don pink ones, captains to wear white ones, and subalterns were to attach green ones to their headwear. It was not until 1783 that an official “Union Cockade” was issued to be worn on the left breast.

The tricorn hat is more than just a historical fashion statement—it is a historic element of the character and pride of our Revolutionary Army. It only seems fitting that we take our “hats off” to one of our favorite headpieces in our nation’s history. Huzzah!

Examine more “signature styles” and history-making signatures in our current exhibition, “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Post updated 8-18-2014

7 thoughts on “Hats Off to the Tri-Corner Hat

  1. I want to know more about the tricorn that is called the “Ben Franklin” hat. Why is it called, that and did Franklin have anything to do with it’s specific design?
    Thank you. Stay safe & be well.

  2. Thanks for the informative article.
    One thing to clarify is that during the time of the American Revolution, the three-corner hat was not referred to as a Tricorn. It was called a Cocked Hat (due to the sides of the hat being drawn up and secured, or cocked.

    1. I have been trying to find information on wig styles of the 1800s, specifically about the number of rolls at the sides of the face. Did men wearing more rolls have more prestige?

  3. I have a tri cornered hat that was found in my wall when doing renovations in Salem Mass. Is there a place that can verify and potentially restore it?

    1. Ellen, I would try a milliner, (a person whom makes hats). Any large city probably has a millenary shop. The U.K. has for sure as also Chicago and New York City. There are also shops on line that teach how to make hats. Enjoy your exploration. Christine Szulc

  4. My great grandad who was a miner wore the tricorn hat with the point at the back to allow water to run off behind the wearer.

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