“Is there anything more cheering than a new hat?”

I have a hero — or a heroine, since we’re talking about the early 20th century, and that was how they rolled. She’s responsible for a lot. When I first read her memoir, I wasn’t particularly interested in the First World War and I’d never heard of Salonika. But Isabel Emslie Hutton was more than an amazing woman with an incredible record of service, who tore down barriers for professional medical women and made great strides in advancing treatment for mental health. She was also a good writer. Even now, thirteen years after I first read them, her words evoke an experience I could never otherwise imagine.
Is there anything more cheering than a new hat? There is no tonic to equal it, as every woman knows, and the confidence it brings is indeed great. Mine had a pink ostrich feather, the only one I have ever had, and I wore it on this one occasion, for I was in uniform a few days later. I saw it again though, when in bedraggled uniform I came home in 1921, and found that my parent had given away every stitch of my clothing except that now very demodé and most unbecoming hat. How could I ever had chosen it, and what a sight for the gods I was as it perched precariously on my short hair over a lean, weather-beaten face!
– Isabel Emslie Hutton, Memories of a Doctor in War and Peace
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Women Wearing Various Styles Of Hats, 1910s.The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1917.

Is there anything more powerful than the erasure of an entire century? Good writing is akin to time travel. One of the things that always strikes me how relatable historical subjects were, how similar they are to us today, how little things have changed. Here, Isabel is writing about her decision to resign her civilian post and take up war work. Her account of the snide misogyny of the stranger on the street, the “kind” patronising official made me a bit sad, and exhausted. Plus ça change! But who hasn’t cheered themselves up with a new hat, or dress? My own talisman is nail polish. I like the idea that, some years from now, I’ll be able to look back at all I’ll have accomplished since that first set-back that sent me running to the beauty aisle at Boots.


3 thoughts on ““Is there anything more cheering than a new hat?”

      • Only just saw this, sorry. No, I’m not focussing purely on Isabella. I’m being very good and telling the tale of the whole group of women doctors that the army risked taking on in 1916. And the struggles those women faced as a result of military injustice/prejudice/whatever. Sadly, the hat has been ditched from lack of time. It epitomised so much – but there are lots of other great quotes.


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