A fascinator is a headpiece, a style of millinery. The word originally referred to a fine, lacy head covering akin to a shawl and made from wool or lace, but mostly feathers. In the modern usage, it refers to a woman’s alternative to hat for formal attire; it is usually a large hair decoration on a band or clip with elaborate trimmings and decoration like a formal hat and it can incorporate a base to make it a miniature hat.
Today, a fascinator may be worn instead of a hat on occasions where hats were traditionally worn—such as weddings—or as an evening accessory, when it may be called a cocktail hat. It is generally worn with fairly formal attire.
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. The fun, fanciful ornament is often embellished with crystals, beads, or loops of ribbon, and attaches via a comb or headband; some have a small, stiff, flat base that can be secured with bobby pins. 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. Amongst them was Princess Beatrice of York, who wore a piece designed by the Irish milliner Philip Treacy. The unusual shape and colour caused quite a media stir and went on to become an internet phenomenon with its own Facebook page. Princess Beatrice used the publicity to auction it off on eBay, where it garnered 99,000 Euros. The sum was donated to charity by her.
In 2012 Royal Ascot announced that women will 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.”