t was customary for Christian women in Europe to wear some sort of headcovering. The European fashion of decorating the head with a hat can be traced back to the late Renaissance era of the 16th century. It was however starting with the Baroque era of the 17th century that head decorations without a hat developed in earnest and took on new heights. Queen Marie Antoinette made the fashion of using ostrich feathers as a head decoration quite popular among the European royal courts. Increased trade with Africa meant ostrich feathers were becoming more readily available to be used in fashion items, although this was still costly and therefore affordable only to the aristocracy and upper class.
In the 19th century, a fascinator was also a lightweight hood or scarf worn about the head and tied under the chin, typically knitted or crocheted. It was made from soft, lightweight yarns and may originally have been called a "cloud." The "cloud" is described in 1870 as being "a light scarf of fine knitting over the head and round the neck, instead of an opera hood when going out at night." The fascinator went out of fashion in the 1930s, by which time it described a lacy hood similar to a "fussy balaclava."
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 designed to perch upon the highly coiffed hairstyles of the period. Although they did not give the style its name, the milliners Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy are credited with having popularised and established fascinators.
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. Among 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 for charity.
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."