Milliner's Ode To Hats Topped With Timelessness Be it a crown or a baseball cap, the hat has signified a variety of things throughout history. A dazzling traveling exhibition celebrates centuries of hats, but really, its curator says, hats tell us more about mood than time.
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Milliner's Ode To Hats Topped With Timelessness

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Milliner's Ode To Hats Topped With Timelessness

Milliner's Ode To Hats Topped With Timelessness

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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. And throughout history the hat has signified variety of things, from a crown to a team baseball cap. A bespoke millinery creation might appear at a wedding or ball; the veil, at a funeral.

Halloween? How many of you went in disguises with headgear ranging from hell-raising horns to Jupiter's rings to a nursing cap? And then there's always the need for protection from the elements. A dazzling traveling exhibition which began at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2009 is now at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. It celebrates centuries of hats but it really comes into its own in our modern era.

It's called "Hats: An Anthology," and it's co-curator is Britain's Stephen Jones, one of the world's most distinguished milliners. From his salon at Covent Garden, London, he's worked internationally with the most celebrated clothing designers. Stephen Jones, it is such a pleasure. You're joining us from our bureau in London. Welcome to the program.

STEPHEN JONES: Hi. I'm delighted to be here.

LYDEN: For all of my passion for hats I was surprised to learn from your exhibit that I didn't know where the word milliner comes from. Would you tell us?

JONES: Yeah. Milliners were originally people from Milan who came to Britain in the 18th century and they settled in the north of London. Just because they were Italian and from Milan, the word became milliners. And they made not only hats but trims on women's clothes, too. So that's really a handmade ladies hatter is a milliner and somebody who makes men's hats is a hatter.

LYDEN: One of the best lines anyone ever told me about a hat - this comes from the '40s. Is that a new chapeau? It's better for the spirits than a bucket full of tranquilizers.

JONES: Exactly. Exactly.

LYDEN: I would agree.

JONES: You know, the amazing thing is, for example, during the Second World War where in Britain everything else was rationed, the two things which weren't rationed were cosmetics and hats. Because they thought it would be too terrible for women to go hatless and too demoralizing.

LYDEN: I would like you to tell us how the creation of the hat moved from the Paris salon to London workrooms, because I would say that London really is the center of the hat.

JONES: For me and for my generation, we always thought that Paris was really the center of millinery like the center of fashion. And certainly in every Hollywood movie they always talk about a Paris hat. 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.

And certainly in more recent years milliners like Phillip Tracy or Noel Stewart, they've really sort of gone to center stage as well. I mean, hats are still made in Paris but around the world, and especially compounded by 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.

LYDEN: Take us into your salon as you do in this show at the Bard's Center in the upper west side.

JONES: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: We see a hat salon there. We have, I believe, nearly 300 hats in the show. And you're organized around four themes. Could you tell us what they are?

JONES: I started to research the exhibition about four or five years ago and we had all sorts of different hats but we didn't really want to put them into chronological order. And as a milliner, I really wanted to put them in this sort of life cycle of a hat. So we start off with "Inspiration." That's how milliner's get ideas, what they get ideas from. Then through "Creation," how the hat is made, and the different techniques and fabrics that are used.

And then there's a section called "The Salon" which is about how we sell the hats and just the visual candy that they are. And then the last section is "The Client" which is where we have hats from pop stars and princesses.

LYDEN: So one of the things that you show is in the show, Stephen Jones, is how timeless hats are. You've mixed them up by centuries and I think your first one was the little Coptic fez from Egypt?

JONES: Yeah, exactly. We have hats from so many different periods and really all over the world as well. We have hats from America, we have hats from Europe, from Japan. But I think hats are not so much about time; they're more about the mood that they create. So you have hats which are effervescent. You have hats which are grumpy. You have hats which are romantic. And whether they were romantic 300 years ago or they're romantic now, it's still the same thing.

LYDEN: You were talking a moment ago about the moods of hats. I also read in an interview that you gave that you were speaking with another designer. You both said that hats are more sculptural than clothing.

JONES: Yes. Because when you're making a hat 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, you know, sculpture or architecture, really, rather than something which is to do with the way that the fabric behaves on the body and moves with it.

LYDEN: Getting back to the collection Hats: An Anthology that you co-curated, I'd like to talk about some of the great American hat designers that you've included, and I'd like to start with Ben Green-Field from Chicago.

JONES: Ben Green-Field, otherwise known as Bes-Ben on his label, was the most incredible and extraordinary milliner working from starting off in the '30s and ending in the late '50s. He really sort of invented the cocktail hat and it was almost a conversation piece. He would have things like swans swimming around this little pillbox.

He would have extraordinary beaded, fantasy creations. I mean, he was one of the fantastic extravagant milliners in America. And funny enough, when I was starting to be a milliner when I was growing up, what I really loved was the American take on millinery, more than the Parisian take on millinery. Because it's always combined that French chic but with American razzamatazz. And put that in a hat and you've got a winning formula.

LYDEN: Stephen Jones, as a milliner, what piece of advice can you give to someone who perhaps wants to take the leap and purchase a hat but is a little bit timid?

JONES: I would always say don't buy a hat in a hurry. When you go and buy a hat, if you're a lady, take a hand mirror with you as well so you can see what it looks like from the back and the sides and everything. And really try as many things on as possible.

You know, you might be - say, for example, if you're going to a formal occasion, well, maybe just a little beret could work. You can do things which are more subtle too.

LYDEN: It's New Year's Eve. Do you have any tips for New Year's Eve attire, even if one is just at home?

JONES: Oh, absolutely wear a party hat. Just get any piece of paper, put it up into a cone and staple it together and you're bound to have a ball.


LYDEN: Stephen Jones, milliner extraordinaire, co-curator of "Hats: An Anthology." There's a book out by the same name. The show is up at the Bard Graduate Center in New York until April 2012. It has been an absolute delight.

JONES: It's been a delight to be here too.

LYDEN: Happy New Year.

JONES: Happy New Year.

LYDEN: Check out the toppers on our website at

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