Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones

Recently I went to see the popular former Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones in its new temporary home at the Bard Graduate Center Galleries.  I’d been longing for an opportunity to see the show after its London run–and I’m glad that I chose an evening when the gallery was open late, as taking the time to wander around and really look at everything is highly recommended.  FYI–gallery admission is free during extended hours on Thursday evenings between 5-8 pm, so there’s little reason to miss out on visiting this exhibition if you are going to be in the New York City area between now and April 15th, 2012 when the show closes.

Spanning three floors of the BGC galleries, the exhibition is organized thematically into four different sections, which follow an artistic-millinery trajectory from Inspiration, to Creation, to the Salon, concluding with the Client—a category signifying simultaneously the end of one creative life cycle and the beginning of another.  Included is an impressive mixture of hats ranging from a 12th century Egyptian fez to fashionable concoctions from the 21st century.  While the involvement of an active designer or design house can sometimes disadvantage an objective curatorial approach — the Stephen Jones show does nothing to underplay the fact that this show is organized by an actively working milliner.  Hats does not in any way aspire to be a comprehensive history of headwear.  Instead, as the title suggests, it is an anthology channeled by one vision and one unique perspective.  Although the work of Stephen Jones comprises this voice and is a prominent portion of the exhibition checklist, ultimately it is the voices of many that create the dialogue of the show.

The first section, Inspiration, provides a refreshing entry into the ideology behind creation.  While starting with inspiration might be the glaringly logical starting point for a designer, it is not often that museum exhibitions start in this manner.  Such information is not usually divulged unless it specifically enhances the perceived value of the work of a designer.  In design school students are taught from day one that inspiration is the starting point of the whole process, and starting the show with this theme draws one into the mindset of an artistic thinker immediately.  Individual cases are sub-categorized into typologies such as “Bonnets and Top Hats”, “Tricornes and Bicornes”, and other less literal designations such as “Status”.  Immediately evident from the mixture of objects included in this section are the multifarious influences that a successful designer draws from, as well as the prominence that history does maintain in informing contemporary design.  Included are items as divergent as a Darth Vader polyethylene helmet from the 1977 film Star Wars, to an Indian crown dated loosely between 1800-1900.  One can compare ‘originals’ such as an 1850 Prince Albert top hat alongside more modern interpretations like the Justin Smith, Polly Wales, and Nikole Lowe tattooed top hat from 2009.  Naturally, thrown into the mix is a Stephen Jones 2008-09 pink silk satin top hat from his collaboration with Comme des Garcons, Homme Plus line for the Autumn/Winter season of that year.

The Creation section of the exhibition provides an exciting selection of exemplary creations, which speak to a mastery of materials and concepts.  In a case focused on straw hats there are Lily Dache pieces from the 1960s grouped with a French Bergere hat with elaborate floral embroidery around the rim from one hundred years earlier.  There is a delightfully twisted Marshall and Snelgrove straw hat (ca. 1937) and a “cityscape” hat by Jennifer Ouellette from 2001 with buildings and trees that encircle the inside of the hat while small squares on the outer ring represent what I enthusiastically interpreted as small cars.  Another vitrine within this section focuses on the animal kingdom and includes an Elsa Schiaparelli silk foulard hat that is printed with ants (although they looked like flies to me), a Bes-Ben of Chicago “Swan hat” comprised of silk, velvet, and cotton that featured two small clusters of embroidered swans meant to sit on either side of the face, and a Michael of Lachasse “Martians Claw” hat and veil from 1955.  Within the creation section were also sub-themes such as “hoods”, “geometry”, and the “modern age”, which paired items like a bicycle helmet alongside a Louis Vuitton “casque damier” hat.

The Salon portion of the exhibition was particularly interesting.  While hats are grouped in cases devoted to materiality by types (paper, flowers, plastic, and feathers, etc.) which collectively provides stunning examples of creative headwear—it is the atelier vignette set up within the room, that simulates the chaotic harmony of a design room in the most compelling way.  From the floor to the ceiling, the reconstruction of an artist’s studio feels complete.  There are tears and sketches tacked along the expanse of the walls; half-open boxes strewn across the floor; and desk lamp spotlighting elaborate concentrated works.  Feathers, findings, and other hat-specific accoutrements are tossed and pinned throughout the room, and there are a variety of interesting objects to glean information from.  One of such is a “Head Shapes” conformator machine, which punches out a pattern of the client’s head directly onto a piece of card for reference.  Displayed next to this bizarre mechanism are patterns for the heads of celebrity clientele such as Cecil Beaton, Jackie Onassis, and Norman Hartnell.

This glamorous clientele of the milliner is the fourth and final section of the installation titled: The Salon.  This portion focuses on the second life that consumption and use brings to finished hats and cases are organized by themes such as “Designer clients”, “Famous hats”, and more physical classifications such as “Tiaras”.  There is an entire case devoted to “Shoe hats”, which quite satisfyingly include an Elsa Schiaparelli creation from 1937-38, alongside inspired homages by Bill Cunningham, and three by Stephen Jones himself from 1982, 2006, and 2011 (who isn’t obsessed with Elsa Schiaparelli!?).  And it is this specific lineage of inspiration which makes the Stephen Jones exhibition so fascinating.  While the quantity, quality, and vast artistic range of examples provided makes for a fun and interesting exhibition regardless, to be presented these items through a designers perspective gives an interesting glimpse into the way that a vital artist perceives the very world in which they labor.

The Stephen Jones exhibition is on view at the Bard Graduate Center galleries through April 15th 2012.  On Thursday, December 15th, Phyllis Magidson, curator of Costume & Textiles from the Museum of the City of New York will be moderating a panel titled The Hatmaker’s Muse: New York Milliners: Part I.  Please see the BGC website for more information.



1- “Sex on the Brain” Hat by Kirsten Woodward, 1989

2- “Shoe Hat” by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1937-38

3- Stephen Jones “Thunderbird” Hat for John Galliano, 1996

4- Stephen Jones/Nasir Mazhar for Gareth Pugh, 2008

5 & 6 – Michael of Lachasse “Martian’s Claw” Hat, 1955

7- Jo Gordon “Kiss of Death” Bonnet, 1994

8- Stephen Jones ‘Bunny Ears’ Hat for Comme des Garcons, 2007

9- Indian Crown (possibly Lucknow), Mid 19th Century

10- Turban, Madras, India, Mid 19th Century

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