A boater hat, also known as a sennit, basher, skimmer, or sailor, is a distinct type of straw hat. This piece of headwear has a stiff flat top and brim. A wide ribbon or piece of material is often wound around the crown of the hat.
First seen in Italy, this hat was the standard choice for gondoliers, the boatmen who propel the long, flat-bottomed boats popular in Venice. Gondoliers typically wore their boater hats with a “doppio nastro,” or long colored ribbon, in red or navy. Many gondoliers today can still be seen in this attire.
Boater hats were first found in the United States in the late 19th century. They were likely brought to the US by Italian immigrants. These hats were worn for both casual and formal events, though the boater hat was restricted to the summer season. At the dawn of the early 20th century, this piece entered mainstream culture and fashion.
In the 1930s, the boater hat found widespread popularity on American waters. It was frequently found atop the heads of fashionable yachters. More than 50 percent of all boater hats were sold for use as casual yachting wear during this period.
Soon, the hat migrated from the nautical scene to more frequent, every day wear. Despite its casual use, however, the boater hat was also considered appropriate attire for more formal events. It could be neatly paired with a blazer or suit for dinners and other evening events.
The boater hat’s widespread popularity gained it publicity in Vaudeville. It was favored by performers such as the legendary Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The hat was small and lightweight, and made excellent use as a prop as well as a fashion statement.
This hat is also rumored to have been used as attire for United States Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in the pre-war period. Though it was not an official piece of uniform, it may have been a subtle, casual way of identifying agents.
When the 1950s hit, the boater hat was a common piece for nearly any summer event. For formal events, the boater hat was the only straw hat deemed acceptable. No felt counterpoint was created, and the hat retained its original material.
Though these straw hats have since left the mainstream fashion scene, boater hats are not entirely gone. They are still used on occasion for sailing, rowing, and boating. As the name suggests, boater hats may always be best suited to a spot on the water.