A fascinator is a formal headpiece for women, a style of millinery. Since the 1990s the term has referred to a type of formal headwear worn as an alternative to the hat; it is usually a large decorative design attached to a band or clip. In contrast to a hat, its function is purely ornamental: it covers very little of the head, and offers little or no protection from the weather.
The word "fascinator" is derived from the Latin verb fascinare ("to fascinate"), and simply means a thing or person that is enthralling or extremely interesting. Historically, the term was also applied to a person or animal with the (perhaps magical) power of rendering others unable to move or escape.
In the mid-19th-century United States, the term "fascinator" was first applied to headwear. In this context, a fascinator was a lightweight hood or scarf worn about the head and tied under the chin, typically knitted or crocheted. The fascinator was made from soft, lightweight yarns and may originally have been called a "cloud". The "cloud" is described in 1871 as being "a light scarf of fine knitting over the head and round the neck, [worn] instead of an opera hood when going out at night".
The use of the term "fascinator" to describe a particular form of late 20th- and early 21st-century millinery emerged towards the end of the late 20th century, possibly as a term for 1990s designs inspired by the small 1960s cocktail hats, which were designed to perch upon the highly coiffed hairstyles of the period.
Today, a fascinator is worn on occasions where hats are customary, sometimes serving as an evening accessory, when it may be called a cocktail hat. It is generally worn with fairly formal attire. In addition, fascinators are frequently worn by women as a Christian Headcovering during church services, especially weddings.
A substantial fascinator is a fascinator of some size or bulk. Bigger than a barrette, modern fascinators are commonly made with feathers, flowers or beads. They need to be attached to the hair by a comb, headband or clip. They are particularly popular at premium horse-racing events, such as the Grand National, Kentucky Derby and the Melbourne Cup. Brides may choose to wear them as an alternative to a bridal veil or hat, particularly if their gowns are non-traditional.
At the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in April 2011, various female guests arrived wearing fascinators. In 2012 Royal Ascot announced that women would have to wear hats, not fascinators, as part of a tightening of the dress code in Royal Ascot's Royal Enclosure. In previous years female racegoers were simply advised that "many ladies wear hats".
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