Rembrandt’s portrait of Saskia in profile, exalted by a curvaceous broad-rimmed red hat, is but one of hundreds of great art works from the past in which women (and men) are depicted wearing a hat, or some sort of head covering. The hat has such a pervasive presence in art that it often passes unnoticed, unless it forces our attention by its incongruous presence. Think of the strange wreathed hat adorning the head of the naked, adolescent David in Donatello’s bronze; the large, messy, exuberant hat in Henri Matisse’s Woman with the Hat, which caused a scandal at the 1905 Salon d’Automne; or the platter with a dead fish that serves as a hat in Pablo Picasso’s 1942 painting of a seated woman, just to name a few of the most memorable hats invented by famous artists.
“Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones,” Sept. 15, 2011-Apr. 15, 2012, a selection of over 250 hats on view at the Bard Graduate Center on West 86th Street in Manhattan, is based on a similar premise -- that only the most surprising headwear deserves attention. The Surrealists were masters of this shock effect, as is Jones, a world-renowned milliner who served as the show’s curator. Materials like felt, straw, fur, plastic and paper, and adornments like feathers, ribbons, fake flowers, fruit, lace and whatever else lies at hand, these are precariously attached to a skull-shaped form and -- voilà! -- a hat. Behind these creations, some made a century or more ago, are the small hands of unsung milliners and hatmakers, whose genius makes a difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary hat.
Quite a few of the hats on view at Bard -- which houses a museum as well as a revered school of design -- were created for fashion shows. In the past, Jones worked closely with the now-disgraced designer John Galliano to design bizarre headwear for Dior’s collections. Together, they conceived of surprising hat-concoctions, from the “artist palette” hat, which is held in place by a pin in the shape of a long paint brush, to the hat they made in 1996 from an assemblage of popsicle sticks, here known as the “Thunderbird” hat. Nazir Mazhar, a recently-discovered London hat designer, is the inventor of a “black cube” hat, which involves a square black veil that sits at an angle and covers the entire face of the model, who is dressed entirely in black. It was made for the Spring/Summer 2008 collection of Garrett Pugh. As early as the 1930s, hats were considered to enhance a designer’s collection; Schiaparelli “shoe” hats, designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali, made a sensation in 1937.
Eccentric hats have also been created for specific personalities. Phillip Treacy, for example, is the creator of the “goose feather” triangular hat, a crisscrossing of bright pink feathers that pop-sensation Kylie Minogue wore on the cover of the July 1995 issue of Tatler magazine. Then there is the 1955 “Martian’s Claw” wedding headdress, designed by Michael of Lachasse and worn by Mrs. Gordon Gottschalk on her wedding day. The likes of Carla Bruno-Sarkozy, Marlene Dietrich, Janet Jackson and Sarah Jessica-Parker are also personalities who have been adorned for important occasions by specialty hat-makers, and their hats are also featured in the exhibition.
Another sensation on view is Jo Gordon’s 1994 “Kiss of death” hat, an accessory that certainly deserves its name, as it consists of aggressive, black feathers protruding horizontally forward and concealing the wearer's face, and could well have been commissioned for a horror film. Indeed, many of the best hats in the show have a dreamlike or nightmarish quality. Take, for example, “Roxette” by Jones, a plastic “wig” hat that imitates a youthful hair style and could have come straight from the costume department of a Futurist movie. The wig features purple plastic bangs and strands of long, purplish ribbon that surround the face.
Not all the hats on view were created with a specific wearer in mind, though. In the 1960s, Balenciaga created a white “Spiral” hat and a green igloo-shaped straw hat. While these two hats mirror the minimalist sensibility of the fine art of the ‘60s, others are dateless. One checks the label, expecting to discover that the creation is contemporary, and it turns out to be a 1908 hat designed by Lucille -- a plaited straw number decorated with velvet flowers. The turban, favored by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir in the 1960s, makes its debut in 1911 for a Paul Poiret fashion show, returns in the ‘60s with Madame Paulette, and is taken over by Prada in the 2006 summer collection. Turbans are, according to the catalogue, one of the most ancient forms of headwear worn by men. And, apparently, later by women.
Indeed, Jones likes to confuse viewers about fashion’s past and present. Among the more venerable displays are an 18th-century tricorn, a Tudor hat from the 16th century, a French Bergère hat from the 1760s and several English and American 19th century bonnets, juxtaposed with more recent hats that look something like the historical models. The most timeless historical item in the show is a wide-brimmed hat whose top is completely covered with white feathers, as well as feathers dyed in subtle colors, which could have been made any time during the 100 years of the 18th century.
The show extends throughout all three floors of the Bard Graduate Center, and is interspersed with videos and photographs that pay homage to milliners past and present, providing context for the exhibition’s objects. In one of the videos, the milliner shows his client how best to wear the hat he is trying to sell her. "Hats" also boasts a replica of a milliner’s atelier, in all its poetic disarray. That particular environment brings to mind not only the craft involved in the making of hats, but the seduction that hats, hat makers, displays of hats, and the milliner’s atelier exerted on artists at the dawn of the modern era.
From Edgar Degas we have At The Millinery Shop (1884-90), depicting a shop display of several gorgeous hats with frothy ribbons piled on top, and a prospective customer admiring one of them. That same year, Paul Signac rendered in Pointillist detail Two Milliners, Rue du Caire (1885-86), a scene of a pair of demoiselles seated at a table, demonstrating the art of hat making with lengths of wide ribbon, scissors and needle. And don't forget that the subject of Matisse’s 1905 Woman with the Hat was not only the artist’s wife -- she was also a milliner.
The hat as a sculptural object has not yet entered the canon of art. "Hats" is so excitingly fresh and imaginative that it could well begin to change this perception. (What's more, the curator, Jones, is a grad of St. Martins art school in London.) The show comes to New York from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an institution where hats old and new are collected -- if not as art, then certainly as rarities.
“Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones,” Sept. 15, 2011-Apr. 15, 2012, The Gallery at the Bard Graduate Center, 18 West 86th Street, New York, N.Y. 10024.
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and cultural historian.