At the turn of the 20th century, women’s style was all big hair and big hats. And to keep those big hats on that big hair, dames needed big hatpins—giant needles up to 12 inches long. Headwear wasn’t the only thing changing in America, though. For the first time, women were socializing on their own and walking the sidewalks unchaperoned. There, they encountered a new peril: street harassment. That’s when ladies started using fashion to play defense.
It all started in 1903, when Leoti Blaker, a young tourist from Kansas, was sitting on a crowded New York City stagecoach. A well-dressed fifty-something man got handsy with her, and when it became clear he wasn’t going to stop, Blaker moved to stop him herself. “At last I reached up and took a hatpin from my hat. I slid it around so I could give him a good dig, and ran that hatpin into him with all the force I possessed,” she told The Evening World. The needle pierced the lecher’s arm, and he scurried away.
Soon, similar accounts began popping up in newspapers around the country. People lauded the women for taking a stand, and hatpins became symbols of female empowerment. But a spate of injurious prickings spooked lawmakers. By 1910, Chicago and other cities had passed laws limiting the length of hatpins. “If women care to wear carrots and roosters on their heads, that is a matter for their own concern,” barked politician Herman J. Bauler, “but when it comes to wearing swords they must be stopped.” The debate broiled until World War I—when hatpins fell out of fashion as shorter hairstyles like the bob rolled in.