Some hats are designed to protect the wearer – from rain, sun, or falling objects. Others are less utilitarian, but much more fun. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) invited the prominent British milliner, Steven Jones, to create an exhibition from their world-renowned collection and the literally, spectacular result will be on view at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts through April 15, 2012. Jones, who’s created hats for both the British royal family and the Rolling Stones, clearly had the time of his life.
Three floors at Bard are filled with Jones’ selection from the museum interspersed with hats from his own archives. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in fashion, and offers many ideas for artists working in collage and three-dimensional constructions because of the range of materials used and their varied treatments. Students of social history will find ripe material, as will celebrity hounds, for the exhibition includes a baseball cap belonging to Babe Ruth, the beaver top hat Franklin Roosevelt wore to his fourth inauguration and hats worn by Madonna and Brad Pitt, among others.
The introductory label explains that hat-making involves large-scale production of standard hat types whereas millinery focuses on the creation and decoration of elegant, experimental, and often whimsical hats. And London, more than anywhere, has maintained the millinery tradition; the weather is mild, so protective hats are not routinely necessary, and the persistence of rituals around the court, track and Church provide regular occasions to show off their artistry. Moreover, the collections of the V & A insure that London milliners know the history of their craft.
The initial case is filled with such modern riffs on traditional forms as Justin Smith, Polly Wales and Nicole Lowe’s Tattooed Top Hat, made of parchment stretched over a copper armature, with bats flying around its crown and brim, and the even more Goth Kiss of Death by Jo Gordon, whose wearer would be impossible to kiss, as her face is surrounded by very long, black feathers, facing forward rather than perched on the top or back of the hat.
The exhibition includes a range of traditional hats, some purely decorative but many of them functional: 19th century womens’ bonnets, a bearskin hat of the Royal Guards, a bicycle helmet, folding plastic rain hat, a decorative, 1960s swimming cap, military hats, a Mexican sombrero, tiaras, and most unusually, an apprentice’s hat from ca. 1550, just the sort of working-class wear that almost never survives. The one area left out was religious head-wear; think of the wonderful forms of nuns’ wimples and cardinals’ hats.
Contemporary milliners clearly derive inspiration from all possible directions; one hat looked like a Hershey’s Kiss, another like an S&M hood; Jones made a variation on a child’s hat of folded newspaper, a most humorous tiara inspired by a crystal chandelier, and a broad-brimmed hat based on an artist’s pallette. A shaman’s dress likely inspired his Vlada – which is more of a costume than a hat, and remarkably close to Nick Cave’s costumes designed for performance (currently on view at the Fabric Workshop & Museum). Many of the contemporary hats include imaginative variations on hat pins, but has anyone living ever seen a real hat pin in use? I think head-bands have taken over as a means to anchor hats to shorter hair. Shirley Hex’s wildly-flowered cloche made of crepe paper must be the most extravagant fashion made of re-purposed household goods since Scarlett O’Hara created a dress out of draperies.
It must be said that many of the hats designed by younger, London milliners, look as though they’d be most appropriate on the stage, probably in burlesque (and indeed, the exhibition included one of Leigh Bowery‘s designs). On the other hand, anyone who paid attention to the last royal wedding will know that British women are willing to wear almost anything on their heads, as long as the hats match their outfits; they are either terribly brave or have a wonderful sense of humor.
Most of the hats are displayed on traditional hat-stands, or on abstracted heads lacking hair and ears which look rather like plexiglass versions of Brancusi’s Head. The problem – and it is one faced in exhibiting any sort of clothing – is that a large part of what makes hats interesting is how they sit on the head, and the means of display was not good at conveying that. One had to rely on imagination, or several short films from the 1950s showing hats worn by models (they run continuously as videos), and enlarged photographs of fashion shots in the final section of the exhibition. But this is a minor quibble about a wonderful exhibition.