The Bryn Mawr Club of Boston’s visit to the Peabody Essex Museum exhibition, “Hats,” was a great success – we had 12 alums and 9 guests plus our docent, Prof. Kathleen McDermott, who entertained and instructed us in the practical and creative aspects of millinery through the ages. There were a few hundred hats on display -purely useful, huge and tiny, celebratory, mourning, artistic, elegant, silly and serious.
The hats in the exhibit were selected by Toby Jones, milliner to royalty and the stars, from the storerooms at the Victoria & Albert museum and from his own collections. One soigné example involved just a few well-placed black feathers sweeping off a small black cap; another was a wide brimmed but low-crown model covered in white feathers with small blasts of bright dye. A hat you might have seen at the Ascot Opening Day was lavender with both side brims curled, each at a different depth and angle, with a peach’y contrast trim and lining. There were sequins and feathers and ruffles and paint, fruits and vegetables and ferns. Men were not left out – there was
a jester’s hat, several military examples, an original Pilgrim’s hat (called a capotain), a richly embroidered fez and, of course, top hats, required of all gentlemen until not that long ago.
Hats are recorded as early as Egyptian times (in a tomb painting) but were mostly practical though not necessarily dull until the late 17th century – brown was the predominant color, except among the gentry and nobility of each society, who could afford color and material and design. Color was an expensive luxury because it was made from natural resources – “Royal” purple, for instance, from ground mollusks and “wine” from cranberries. During these few centuries, ladies and gentlemen would own several hats, one (or more) in each color or basic style; women (or their maids) might decorate a basic hat with different accessories for every occasion or time of year, but for a special occasion would commission a custom design. Bonnets for rural use might be of cotton, with a brim to minimize glare and protect from dust, and ties to keep it on while jolting along on a horse or wagon – a ruffle or printed material could be simple extras.
Hats were, and are, a social signifier: The degree of face covering in a mourning bonnet indicated what stage of mourning a widow was in; the small, flirty, bicycling hats made a statement about women’s great progress over just 20 years from hooped skirts and large bonnets to divided skirts and perky caps. When Europe plunged into WWII, the hat industry in the Americas took off, allowing free reign of non-European creativity. At first, because of rationing, hats were small, but after the war, they ‘grew’ larger and more fanciful again.
In examples created during the social upheaval of the 60’s, there were hats with an upside down velvet shoe on it (reversing old trends) and a helmet with a Mohawk cut created from a doll’s head and several (what looked like) Barbie legs pointing their toes upwards. The latter looked somewhat like a synchronized swimming demonstration but the overall creation demonstrated the wearer’s freedom, sense of humor and perhaps, politics.
Professor McDermott, who teaches, blogs and writes as a faculty member in Apparel Design and Fashion History at the Rhode Island School of Design, has published Hats and Fashion History, 1830-1930 but has also written more generally about fashio and commerce through the centuries, including being part of the teams responsibl for histories of Buxton, Price Waterhouse and other brand names. Early on, she als earned two law degrees and practiced for many years.
Useful bits of information (perhaps just for crossword buffs but you never know):
· “Mad as a Hatter”: evolved from the effects of mercury, which was used to treat felt; as the hat-makers could not avoid the fumes, they suffered horrible neurological damage.
· Caleche: A construction of whalebone and wire beneath decorative material, worn in the 18th C. and designed to cover not only the head but an enormous wig or hairdressing lacquered with wheat flour as well. The result was that the head appeared towards the middle of the body.
· Leghorn: A fine Italian straw originating in Livorno in Tuscany, whose English name was Leghorn.
· Fascinator: Is a head piece or decoration – it is not a hat because it does not cover enough of the head.
We thank Jane Lifton and Sarah Herlihy for their superb job of planning and organization and hope that those of you who care about hats had a chance to see the show!
Alumnae who joined us were: Louise Ambler ’56, Kate Ewing ’76, Suzanne Greenberg
’51, Alexandra Gullett ’05, Sarah Herlihy ’94, Margaret Hoag ’86, Martha Levinson ’74, Jane Lifton ’76, Susan Navarre ’81, Monica Nevius ’85, Sydney Owens ’64, Melissa Schoeller ’12
– Martha Levinson ’74