Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Let Fashion Get to Your Head

Bjork in Pom Pom Hat (Hat on display at the BGC)

Ever wondered what it takes to make a hat? Stephen Jones, the world’s foremost hat designer, in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London organized the exhibit Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, currently on view at the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) in New York (September 15, 2011 to April 15, 2012).

While for centuries hats had been a wardrobe staple in many cultures, a rupture occurred in Western societies right after the Second World War and particularly in the 1960s. All of a sudden, it was ok to leave home without a hat. Wearing one immediately placed the wearer within a particular socioeconomic segment, and this, depending on the hat, sometimes was good and some others not.

It was the early 1980s when Stephen Jones revived British millinery with unusual materials and imaginative designs. Mainly, he elevated millinery from a craft to an art and collaborated with many fashion designers including Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, L’Wren Scott, Comme des Garçons, and the House of Dior.

The exhibit occupies three floors at the BGC and is divided into sections, such as Inspiration, Creation, The Salon, and The Client. In each section, hats, ancient and modern, are organized into sub-groups according to themes such as exoticism, nature, modernism et al. Over 250 hats from the collection of the Victoria and Albert are on display and yet, one primarily encounters examples from the UK, France and the US, with the occasional addition of an Indian turban or a twelfth-century Egyptian fez relic. This is to say that the exhibit is not trying to serve as an encyclopedia of head-dress but rather showcase the most prominent influences on millinery design and how these travel sometimes from the East to the West or vice versa.

The groupings are also very successful as chronicles of themes, designs, and shapes that have endured through time and re-appear as if re-incarnated with everlasting power in new cultures or new segments of society.  It is indeed an anthology and so well assembled that it provides the contextual references that fashion exhibits often lack. Jones’s humor is evident both in his own creations (do look for Santa Banana or Wash and Go) and in the way he organizes his themes. The videos that accompany the exhibit are both informative and eye opening, when one considers how much work is required for the production of a hand-made hat. The milliner’s studio on the second floor gallery is an exquisite reproduction of a salon whose clients include Princess Diana, or Jacqueline Kennedy. Their head imprints are there to prove it.

Both art and craft therefore, hat making has contributed to the image we have of some of the most famous people in history. Think of the top hat worn by President Franklin Roosevelt to his fourth inauguration or the elegant hat Estée Lauder wore when she launched her scent “Beautiful.” Hats are items of material culture and acquire significance partly because of their designer’s imagination and craft and partly because of the wearer’s own aura. As delightful as it is, this exhibit is not a lightweight.

The accompanying book by Stephen Jones and Oriole Cullen, curator of textiles and fashion at the V & A is published by the V & A and available for purchase at the Bard Graduate Center.

© Thomaï Serdari