Left: STEPHEN JONES FOR CHRISTIAN DIOR HAUTE COUTURE, Olga Sherer inspirée par Gruau Hat, Autumn Winter 2007/08. © Right: HUSSEIN CHALAYAN, Spring/Summer 2009 ready-to-wear show, Paris Fashion Week. ©

Hats An Anthology

wearable arts


Go see the delightful and utterly engaging hat exhibition at the Gallery at the Bard Graduate Center, closing April 15, and you may find yourself yearning to stride the street in a chapeau that oozes mid-twentieth-century Parisian chic—perhaps a green straw pillbox by Balenciaga, circa 1960. The Balenciaga mixes humor with style; a straw screw appears to bolt the hat onto the wearer’s head. Think you can carry off a little more drama? You might want something like the 2007 artist’s palette hat by Stephen Jones for Christian Dior. It comes with daubs of paint around the brim and a paintbrush angled coquettishly out of the crown. If your taste runs more to a street-wise look, how about Philip Treacy’s 1991 oversized pampas grass Rastafarian cap? It is about the dimensions of a large wasp’s nest and exudes stinging style.

BALENCIAGA, green straw hat, circa 1960. © V&A Images.

The one drawback of Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones is that after admiring the two hundred fifty hats on exhibit—they range from a twelfth-century fez to the latest millinery from London and New York—it is tempting to kick yourself for ever leaving the house without something on your head that makes a statement. Unleashing a wave of hat appreciation is of course one of the raisons d’etre of this show, which was drawn, in part, from the matchless hat collection at London’s V&A Museum and curated by Stephen Jones, the reigning prince of millinery. Jones, who studied apparel design before falling for hats, is generally credited with reviving London’s contemporary millinery scene over the course of the last thirty years and putting panache back into runway headwear. In an essay Jones wrote for the book that accompanies the exhibition, he writes that “A hat makes clothing identifiable, dramatic—and, most importantly, Fashion. There are so many expressions marking the importance of a hat. It’s the cherry on the cake, the dot on the ‘i,’ the exclamation mark; the fashion focus.”

Indeed nearly every piece in this charmingly installed exhibition is loaded with style. There are hats that look straight out of the romantic comedies of the mid-twentieth century, such as a red and white straw boater adorned with flowers and a veil made in the late 1940s by Madam Suzy, an influential Parisian milliner. One of Madame Suzy’s contemporaries in Paris was the designer Paulette, who was famous for her turbans. Paulette’s pink and mint green silk tulle turban is a candy-colored bonbon topped with a pompom. More outré yet equally glamorous is Philip Treacy’s hot pink goose feather hat from 1995. The hat resembles an artfully arranged fuchsia haystack. Though humans have covered their heads for various reasons since the first cavemen thought to ward off the cold by throwing animal pelts over their heads, Jones notes that the idea of millinery—or hats meant for style rather than practicality—is only a couple of hundred years old. Millinery, Jones says, “concentrates on a more decorative and light-hearted approach to hat-wearing, as opposed to protective, religious and status matters often conferred by hats.”

MILLINERS WORK AROUND A LONG TABLE in the model millinery workroom, Stephen Jones Millinery, Covent Garden, 2008. © V&A Images.

The exhibition’s historic hats are intriguing, partly because many of them look so au courant. An elegant black felt fur top hat from 1850 is shown next to a satin top hat designed in 2008 by Stephen Jones for Comme des Garçons. Jones’s version is a tipsy pink flamingo of a topper, but in pure style, it has nothing on the dashing 1850 version. There are brown and black silk nineteenth-century bonnets that conjure images of women in Charles Dickens novels. And there are hats that were symbols of the changing times, such as the sporty straw broad-brimmed Aero Club hat that was a fashion accessory to the early twentieth-century rage for the new sport of airplane flying. The historic hats also serve to point out that millinery has always reflected cultural shifts. Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous Shoe Hat is here. Schiaparelli was the haute couturier of the surrealist set, and her 1937 hat fashioned to look like an upside down women’s pump is still slyly provocative.

Hats: An Anthology offers a broad overview of fashionable hats from the late nineteenth century through today, lighting on such trends as turbans, military inspired headwear and hats inspired by flora and fauna, which often means hats decorated with silk flowers, bird feathers or fur. An extremely alluring if these days politically incorrect hat from the mid-nineteenth century made by the French milliner Caroline Reboux is a cap of fur and silk ribbons with two furry tails dangling from the back like thick brown pony tails. The hat was probably owned by the Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III. A whimsical hat inspired by marine life is Simone Mirman’s Langoustine Fantasia from the 1960s. Tropical fish-colored silk tendrils dangle under a flat cap. It would make any woman look like a shrimp-and-turquoise-hued medusa. And there are hats inspired by industry and modernity, such as the dramatic 1985 black skullcap and veil made by Graham Smith. It was designed for the Pirelli tire company’s calendar. The veil is edged with the distinctive patterns of one of Pirelli’s most advanced tire treads. The Pirelli hat would look right at home in a Fellini film or in a Dolce and Gabbana spread.

CHRIS CLYNE, pierrot hat, 1979. © V&A Images.

Jones’s own work is well represented in the show, of course. Included are novelty chapeaux, such as his 1982 Pas de Deux, a shimmering golden cap and veil crowned with a pair of tiny ballet shoes. Jones was inspired to make the hat after seeing ballet shoes in windows of a dance shop. Also included are hats he has designed for various fashion houses, such as a floral fantasy of pink and orange orchids Jones created for the fashion designer John Galliano in 2008. Carmen Miranda would have given up her fruit platter chapeaux if she had been offered this crown of oversized hothouse flowers. Jones has also brought in work from his contemporaries, notably Treacy, Patricia Underwood and Lola Ehrlich. Underwood and Ehrlich were originally from Europe—Underwood is English by birth and Ehrlich was born in the Netherlands and raised in France—but both have built successful millinery businesses in New York, which is good news for Americans who love hats. Both have designed for major American designers such as Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. Ehrlich, whose label is simply Lola, has also designed for Kate Spade, The Gap and J.Crew. After viewing the hats made by these and the other designers in the exhibition, it is interesting to get to the top floor of the exhibition where Jones has built a replica of a contemporary millinery studio. It is a seductive place filled with buttons, ribbons and bows, silks, satins, and hat molds. Tools of the trade such as scissors, delicate hammers, tacks, and steamers are a reminder that millinery is a craft that requires not only creativity and taste, but also excellent hand skills.

In fact it is impossible to go through this exhibition without making the connection between millinery and sculpture. Millinery is like jewelry in that it is a sculptural personal adornment that is wholly unnecessary from a practical point of view. You can leave the house without earrings, necklaces or an eye-catching hat, though leaving without clothes can be problematic. Designing and wearing millinery, like designing and wearing jewelry, becomes a statement about the maker and the wearer. In a section of the exhibition Jones dedicates to people who wear hats, particularly those who wear what he calls “millinery,” Jones notes “A hat is nothing until worn … The hat’s impact is the synthesis of who the person is and who they want to be. When the two are blended together it becomes a great personal signature.” I will tip my hat to that.



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