Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Witches in Pointy Hats

A black dress, a pointy hat, buckled shoes. Classic witch outfit. But why is this the classic outfit? One sees speculations in occult books, often times being presented as if this has been the "witch outfit" for thousands of years. Reasons are offered, such as that the conical hat channels energy into the head, or that black clothing is for protection, etc. The facts, however, are a bit more mundane...

The depiction of witches in pointy hats and black gowns is a fairly recent way to depict them. Old illustrations from the middle ages through the 17th century usually show witches practicing in the nude, or else wearing whatever kinds of clothing were commonplace at the time. The picture at left, from 1555,  shows the witches in typical middle-class gowns and kerchiefs. Interestingly, some of the men observing the activity seem to be wearing tall pointy hats, and that brings us to the real reason behind this witchy fashion...
As can be seen in this image of the artist Peter Paul Rubens with his wife, painted circa 1609, pointy hats were a fashion for a while. The color black -- which in the middle ages had been a difficult color to achieve with natural dyes -- also grew in popularity after the 15th century when new dyeing techniques were developed. It became especially popular during the 17th century (think of how Pilgrims are always depicted in somber colors, or of the group portrait paintings by Hals and Rembrandt such as The Anatomy Lesson.)

Depictions of pointy-hatted witches seem to begin during the 18th century -- and it is surely no coincidence that this was the same era in which witches came to be viewed as old-time superstitions and witch-hunts went on the decline or were even outlawed. Witches being relics of the past, it became normal to depict them in old-fashioned clothes. Famous cases from the pointy-hat era such as the Salem Witch Trials and the Pendle Witches helped cement the association of these fashions with witchcraft. The illustration above is circa 1715, from a book about the history of witchcraft. 

Though the original 17th century hats tended to have a flattened or rounded top, the 18th century depictions started to be done with sharp points at the top. Perhaps it was due to artists misunderstanding an outmoded fashion, or perhaps it was deliberately done to twist the old time fashions and make them look more frightening. While through the 18th century one can still find witches depicted with veils or kerchiefs or other blunt headwear, by the 19th century the pointy-hatted witch in old-fashioned clothes was standard shorthand for "wicked witch."

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