The royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton is one of the most recent events where we saw upper-class British women flocking from their homes in their extravagant, fancy hats. This is a very common societal habit in England among royalty and the well-to-do, and is less commonly seen in the middle to lower class. But why all the fuss about women's hats? Why are they so important? Why was the Prime Minister's wife, Samantha Cameron, criticized for not wearing a hat?
Theoretically, it dates back to the Anglican religious tradition ruling that women should keep their heads, hair, and hands covered, especially while in church. It was meant to represent and promote modesty among women; a verse in the book of Corinthians states that women's hair is considered their "glory" and must be covered out of respect for God and men.
Obviously, this is a tradition for long ago, and is no longer true of most churches today. However, the idea of the fancy hat being a finishing touch of and a vital part of an outfit still remains. It is meant to be seen as the completion to an outfit, and a woman wearing an outfit to a formal occasion, such as a wedding, without her hat appears to have her outfit "unfinished".
It seems that a fancy, formal hat has become a sign of respectability and class that goes hand in hand with the ideas of fashionability in Britain. The Queen herself is well-known for her extensive collection of fancy formal hats – each outfit has a matching hat, usually crafted in a bright and bold color to provide some pop in big crowds. Hats have become synonymous with status and with genteelness among the wealthy upper class, especially among royalty, and it seems that even whimsical and ostentatious fancy formal hats are worn for the purpose of statement and display of class status.