The Tricorn Hat and Bauta Project

Photo of Tricorn Hat with Venetian Mask and HoodWhen you mention tricorn hats in the United States, most people immediately think back to the colonial/revolutionary period of the 18th century; Minutemen, powdered wigs, broadfall breeches, et cetera.  I’ve always liked the dress of that period but have never really pursued it in any costume or living history contexts  because facial hair was very much out of fashion at that time, and my goatee isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future.  I don’t want to be “that guy” sporting the 19th century beard with the 18th century fashion.

A few years ago, though, I learned of another context for the tricorn thanks to the beautiful Bicycle Venexiana deck of playing cards, designed by Lotrek at the Half Moon playing cards company.  The tricorn hat is also an integral part of the traditional bauta, now a traditional costume worn during carnival, but once a curious everyday fashion in Venice.

Photo of Bicycle Venexiana Playing Cards

Venetians of all stations would wear the bauta as a way to mask their social status, thus enabling interactions between all classes of people at a time when such things simply weren’t done.  In addition to the black tricorn hat, the bauta consists of a black cloak, a black hood, and a distinctive, ghostly white mask.  The mask’s peculiar snoutlike shape serves to cover the wearer’s face while still making it easy for them to breathe, speak, eat and drink.

Something about the bauta got under my skin (It’s equal parts The Cask of Amontillado and Amadeus), and I resolved to make an ensemble for myself; circle cloaks and hoods aren’t too difficult to make, and I figured I could pull the other parts together one way or another. I hadn’t given much thought to the hat until I came across the free tricorn hat pattern at knitlikeapirate.com.  I was already comfortable with knitting and felting thanks to a couple of Balmoral bonnets I’d made, and the pattern is about as simple as it gets; if you can cast on, knit and purl in the round, and decrease stitches you can make this hat.  I logged some more detailed notes over on Ravelry but here’s the gist of it:

Using large needles and a double strand of yarn, you knit the brim and crown:

Photo of Hand-knitted Hat Blank Before FeltingThe hat looks impossibly huge and floppy until you felt the wool yarn by throwing it in the washing machine.  Hot water and agitation cause the wool fibers to shrink and lock together, turning the loose knit into felt.

After felting, the hat is still pretty shapeless and needs to be blocked (trained) into its more or less final shape.  I used a bowl inside the crown, sandwiched the brim between two pieces of cardboard, weighed it all down and let it dry.  The result looked like an honest to goodness hat blank:

Photo of Felted and Blocked Hat BlankIt was still fairly floppy, though.  Although folding the brim up into the distinctive three-cornered configuration does give the hat a bit more structure, I opted to stiffen the felt by brushing it with white glue diluted with water.  You can purchase professional felt stiffening products but I wasn’t sure how well those might work given the thickness of the felt, and I already had glue laying around.  It worked fairly well – if I made another one of these I would probably try saturating the felt a bit more than I did.  Once the hat dried, it was time to attach the brim to the crown:

Photo of Shaped Tricorn Hat

Finally, some gold trim and a ribbon cockade (easier to see in the photo at the top of the page) finished the hat it off nicely.  The mask was an Ebay score, made in Venice proper by Mondonovo:

Photo of Tricorn Hat with Venetian Mask and Hood

All in all a very satisfying project but with lots of room for future improvement; someday I’d like to upgrade the crushed velvet 3/4 circle cloak I made to an actual wool tabarro, and make some period-correct breeches instead of the costume quality ones I currently have… but in the meantime it’s still more striking than anything you’ll find at the Halloween costume shop.

Further Reading

Johnson, James H. Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.