The Tricorne or “Cocked Hat”

French Tricorne
French Tricorne of 18th Century, Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

The tricorne hat, which was initially called a “cocked hat,” became popular in the 1700s but was falling out of fashion by the 1800s and eventually evolved into the bicorne. The tricorne was actually an evolution of a broad-brim round hat worn by Spanish soldiers in Flanders in the 1600s. When its brim was pledged (bound), it formed a triangular shape. The triangular shape was the shape favored by Spanish soldiers. Thus, when war broke out in 1667 between France and Spain in the Spanish Netherlands, the triangular hat found its way to France.

By the end of the 17th century, the tricorne was popular with a wide variety of people: military men adopted it alongside aristocracy and common civilians. One English author wrote of the triangular hat that “there is no doubt that the flat cocked hat of the days of Louis XIV and Louis XV, gave much smartness to the solider, and much neatness to the civilian.”[1] Part of the reason for the tricorne’s popularity was because King Louis XIV adopted it. He made it fashionable throughout Europe and even America’s presidents — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — wore it.

Tricornes (left to right and top to bottom) 1685, 1717, 1733, 1740, 1750, 1764, 1770, and 1780, Author's Collection
Tricornes (left to right and top to bottom) 1685, 1717, 1733, 1740, 1750, 1764, 1770, and 1780. Public domain.

At the height of the tricorne’s popularity, it came in a wide variety of styles and sizes. One person noted that the small cocked hat of the early 1700s “was perfection and beauty itself.”[2] Unfortunately, he claimed the cocked hat gave way to a hat described as “outrageous and elevated.” This outrageous and elevated hat came into fashion sometime before 1750. Apparently, this hat “was no longer formed by the pinching up of a circular brim of moderate dimensions.”[3] Instead it relied on “three enormous flaps … their unwieldy height in the air … strengthened, stiffened, and supported, against the envious winds, to the torment of the wearer, and to the disfigurement of his person.”[4]

Cocked hats were also generally dark in color — black, gray, or brown. Some the cocked hats included cockades to show a political affiliations or alliances. The hats could also been worn in one of two ways: “fore-and-aft” (front-and-back) or “athwart” (peaks at the sides). Supposedly, the Duke of Wellington wore his hat in the fore-and-aft position while Napoleon became famous for wearing his athwart. Some people also wore “their hats open like a church spout, or some rather sharper, like the nose of a greyhound, and often the character of the wearer could be distinguished by the way the hat was worn.”[5]

The tricorne had several benefits. First, it was stylish. Gentlemen could easily wear it with their wigs, which easily permitted identification of a person’s social status. Second, it was small, folded easily, and could be tucked under a gentleman’s arm if etiquette required. The third reason offered a practical advantage. The brim could loop up with a cord and provide shelter to a man’s face on hot sunny days. Furthermore, according to one gentleman, “All cocked hats … are glorious rain-traps.”[6] This meant these umbrella-like hats prevented wearers from getting rain-soaked.

One nineteenth century gentleman humorously noted that the only improvement to the cocked hat “is one not yet patented, namely, the appending of … flexible spouts … from each corner, so as to convey the water in pleasant meanderings over the back and coattails. In dry weather these spouts might be tied up, and would form graceful curves either before, behind, or on one side of the cocked flaps, while in a shower they would add dignity to the utility, as they hung all adown the back of the wearer.”[7]

References:

  • [1] The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, Vol. 57, 1845, p. 54.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The American Hatter, Volume 28, 1898, p. 77.
  • [6] The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, p. 54.
  • [7] Ibid.

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