Etymology Usage

Fascinator rhythm

Q: I grew up in England and moved to the US 30 years ago, but I never heard of the word “fascinator” until the recent royal nuptials. I’m curious to know if there’s any link between what is now, obviously, a piece of millinery whimsy atop a lady’s head and the notion of such headgear as being (somewhat) fascinating.

A: If you studied the crowds waiting outside Westminster Abbey for a glimpse of the royal couple, you probably saw lots of fascinators.

A fascinator, as we all know now, is a lady’s hat, but not just any kind of hat. It is (to quote you) “a piece of millinery whimsy.” And it is often over the top, if you’ll pardon the pun.

It’s generally concocted of things like feathers, flowers, beads, and lace, and it perches jauntily—rather like a bird—just above the forehead or off to one side.

Like many British women, Kate Middleton (now Catherine, Dutchess of Cambridge), has liked fascinators.

In fact, her liking for them has kicked off what the Wall Street Journal calls a “fascinator frenzy.”

If you have time, take a look at the Journal article, complete with a slideshow of (mostly) British ladies in their fascinators.

Since we associate fascinators with British women, it’s interesting that the word “fascinator” in the sense of headwear first appeared in 19th-century America.

Back then, though, a fascinator wasn’t as flashy as it is today.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the early “fascinator” as “a head shawl worn by women, either crocheted or made of a soft material.”

The term first showed up in print, the OED says, thanks to another Kate. In a letter written in 1878, the author Kate Douglas Wiggin recalled “Mother crocheting a fascinator.”

In another citation, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue for 1897 offered a “Ladies’ Fascinator, made of good quality Shetland yarn … colors, pink and white.”

The dictionary’s other citations for that early sense of “fascinator” extend into the 1960s, so it’s likely that the meaning of the old word was simply updated.

The OED doesn’t explain why those early head shawls were called fascinators, but we can guess.

Since they were often crocheted or made of lace, a lady could modestly cover her head and still peep out—shyly or provocatively—through the spaces in the material.

And an attentive gentleman could catch a glimpse of her shy or provocative eye. What could be more fascinating?

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