Milliner's Ode To Hats Topped With Timelessness

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Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown — perhaps that's why the queen often appears in such an impressive array of hats. Throughout history, the hat has signified a variety of things, from a crown to a team baseball cap.

A dazzling traveling exhibition celebrates centuries of hats. Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones began at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2009 and is now at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City through April 2012.

Co-curator Stephen Jones is one of the world's most distinguished milliners. From his salon in Covent Garden in London, he's worked internationally with the most celebrated clothing designers.

Going Hatless? How 'Demoralizing'

One of the bits of information found in the exhibit is the origin of the term "milliner." Jones tells Weekend Edition guest host Jacki Lyden that the word came from "Milan," referring to people from Milan, Italy, who settled in the north of London in the 18th century.

"They made not only hats, but trims on women's clothes, too," he says. "So ... a handmade lady's hatter is a milliner, and somebody who makes men's hats is a hatter."

Hats have remained a fixture in British life, even in hard times.

"During the Second World War, where in Britain everything else was rationed," Jones says, "the two things which weren't rationed were cosmetics and hats, because they thought that it would be too terrible for women to go hatless, and too demoralizing."

For Jones and his generation, Paris was as much the center of millinery as it was the center of fashion.

"But I think in the '80s what happened was suddenly with youth fashion — and myself included, and with people like Vivian Westwood creating hats for young people — the focus of millinery went from Paris to London," he says.

Though hats are still made in Paris, London's reputation for hats and hat making has become even more robust because of recent milliners and, of course, the royal wedding.

"You know, when anybody turned the TV on from around the world, what they saw was the hats more than anything else," Jones says.

A Timeless Classic

For the exhibit, Jones stayed away from conventional chronology.

"As a milliner, I really wanted to put them in this sort of life cycle of a hat," he says.

The nearly 300 hats are arranged in themes: "Inspiration," "Creation," "The Salon" and "The Client."

The result is a mix of hats from different centuries and countries, the earliest being a Coptic fez from Egypt.

"But I think hats are not so much about time. They're more about the mood that they create," Jones says. "So, you have hats which are effervescent. You have hats which are grumpy. You have hats which are romantic. And whether they're romantic 300 years ago or they're romantic now, it's still the same thing."

Finding The Right Form

Jones also sees hats as being more sculptural than clothing because, with hats, "you're making a form."

"You're not simply making something that drapes on the body. So often, you know, hats are really akin to sculpture or architecture, really, rather than something which has to do with the way that the fabric behaves on a body and moves with it," he says.

Forming his own inspiration as he was growing up, Jones looked to America.

"What I really loved was the American take on millinery, more than the Parisian take on millinery," he says, "because it always combined that French chic but with American razzmatazz. Put that in a hat, and you've got a winning formula."

As for those too timid to take the leap and buy a hat with razzmatazz, Jones advises, "Don't buy a hat in a hurry." Take a hand mirror to get a glimpse from all angles and try on as much as possible. For formal occasions, Jones says a subtle beret can work, too.

But there's no excuse for going hatless on New Year's Eve.

"Absolutely wear a party hat," he says. "Just get any piece of paper, put it up into a cone, staple it together, and you're bound to have a ball."

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