Fascinator 101: Everything You Need About the Royal Wedding Tradition

Plus, the best royal fascinators in history.

Kate Middleton wearing a fascinator

Getty Images

While there may be no royal wedding in the works right now, we're still dreaming about royal nuptials past. One of our favorite fashion details (beside the wedding, of course!)? The royal wedding guest attire. And more particularly, the fascinators.

What Is a Fascinator?

A fascinator is a formal hat or headwear that is worn at weddings and other formal events; it's more popular in the United Kingdom than in the United States.

Hats and fascinators are a high-society staple across the pond. We spoke with Marie Galvin of Marie Galvin Fine Millinery, an Irish-born, Boston-based milliner, to find out everything you need to know about the royal (and derby) accessory.

Why does one wear a fascinator? What does it symbolize?

For some women it represents a status symbol or honoring tradition, for others it's pure fun. Depending on the event, there’s often an unspoken competition for best fascinator or headpiece, and that’s where the fun ensues. Some of my customers wear them as a form of self-expression, especially the more elaborate and artistic pieces. A great headpiece is like a fab pair of Louboutins. It completes an ensemble and adds a sexy-chic sophistication to the overall look.

Princess Beatrice of York with her sister Princess Eugenie of York
Chris Jackson / Getty Images

What differentiates a fascinator from other types of headwear?

Americans became obsessed with the word fascinator during and after Kate & William’s royal wedding. It was mentioned in every report from the extravagant day that was as much about fashion as the new royal couple themselves. Viewers worldwide were given a window into how people dress for weddings in England and the world became enamored with fascinators. However, the concept is a hotly debated one in the millinery world. Not everything that is worn on the side of one’s head is considered to be a fascinator. Usually, it's created with some feathers, veiling, crib, and a wide array of embellishments that have mass appeal.

Are there certain fascinator styles that are more appropriate for a wedding?

It all depends on the requirements set forth by the couple on their invitation. If you’re invited to a wedding in the British Isles, it will be specified in the dress code. Often the word “encouraged” is used. It has, however, become a tradition to at least embellish your head with something chic and classic, and that’s why fascinators have become so popular for weddings. For wedding season I work mostly with sinamay straws, parasisal straw-like structures that are beautifully elegant and impeccably adorned.

Kate Middleton at the wedding of Laura Parker Bowles and Harry Lopes at St Cyriac's Church, Lacock
Tim Graham / Getty Images

What is typically worn with a fascinator? How would you suggest styling it?

It depends on the intricacy, embellishments, and overall design of the headpiece. They look great with a dress or a sophisticated well-fitted pantsuit. I like to assist my clients with the final details. I always take a photo of my clients wearing the fascinator correctly for their reference later. One should have a cohesive look head to toe—there is nothing worse than a fascinator as an afterthought.

When in doubt, get inspiration from the royal family, especially Kate Middleton’s personal style. She always looks perfect for every occasion and she never misses the mark on her headwear selection.

Kate Middleton departs for the Royal wedding of Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall at Canongate Kirk
Mike Marsland / WireImage

Are you seeing any headwear trends emerge for Harry and Meghan’s wedding?

Anything from perchers to bold and unusual architectural shapes will be in demand for the wedding. Head-to-toe monochromatic color palettes are always on trend for royal weddings. Of course, there will be the many variations of classic disc-like structures from wide to upswept shapes with twists and turns.

Victoria Beckham arrives to attend the Royal Wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton
Mike Marsland / WireImage

How will styles this year vary from those made for the guests at William and Kate’s wedding?

Since the [2011 royal] wedding, there are many new and innovative millinery materials and techniques available. We will still see many creative couture headpieces designed in interesting and modern fabrications. Truly, the sky’s the limit.

Meghan Markle attends Christmas Day Church service at Church of St Mary Magdalene
Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Can American guests wear fascinators to a royal wedding? What can they wear to respect the tradition and British culture?

Many Americans often [feel like they] need an excuse to wear a hat or fascinator and what better occasion than a royal wedding? I encourage invited guests to visit a couture milliner like myself to procure their headwear selection.

If Americans learned anything from Kate and William’s wedding, they will know that 99 percent of the guests wore hats. Go to a milliner who is experienced with special occasion headwear. Most importantly, find your comfort zone and don’t go out on a limb.

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