While New York City launched Fashion Week, Westchester hit its own fashion peak. “HATtitude: The Milliner in Culture & Couture” opened at the ArtsWestchester gallery in White Plains on February 9.
By Maureen Mancini Amaturo
While New York City launched Fashion Week, Westchester hit its own fashion peak. “HATtitude: The Milliner in Culture & Couture” opened at the ArtsWestchester gallery in White Plains on February 9. It was SOHO meets Schiaparelli meets sheer fashion madness, in the best possible way. Featuring bonnets to bridal, steampunk to surreal, couture to yarmulkes, every aspect of the art and lore of the hat is covered. At the opening, hat-wearers of all ages, male and female, designers and stylistas, crowded the gallery.
The inspiration for the exhibit came to Janet Langsam, CEO of ArtsWestchester, when she was visiting Milwaukee some years ago and saw an exhibit of the hats that African-American women wear to church. “It was wonderful. One was more unusual than the next. I asked our staff to put together a hat show.”
Langsam continued, “Regrettably, we don’t wear them enough anymore. Hats and gloves used to be standard gear. I hope visitors will wear hats when they come to the show.”
Curators Tom Van Buren, Kathleen Reckling, and Judith Schwartz, combined their talents and different areas of expertise to create a showcase of 210 hats. Van Buren, a folklorist, says, “We derived inspiration from the collections of the local Baptist church ladies and other local groups. We began our fieldwork with different sources like the Milliners Guild. We even brought in hats representing ethnic folk dance and dance troops from Peru and Mexico.”
Reckling noted that the oldest hats in the exhibit are from Tibet and date from the 16th and 17th century. The oldest hat representing the western world is a black and red bonnet (1870) on loan from Lyndhurst, the Jay Gould estate in Tarrytown. “For the exhibition, we grouped the hats into three sections: Everyday, Global and Ethnic, and Couture, with a subcategory of celebration in each.”
Before millinery referred specifically to hat-making, it was a general term for all forms of dress, all garments that came out of Milan, came into its own as a distinct art in the 18th century. At that time, the division of social classes was apparent by the hat one wore. Hats became part of everyday fashion in the 19th century. Later, hats became a fashion staple to balance the elaborate form of Victorian dressing, and it became de rigueur to dress from head to toe. Hats were the crowning touch.
Said “HATtitude” curator Schwartz, “You’ll see a firefighter’s helmet, a nurse’s cap, hats related to religion. We identify people with what they wear. In so many professions, a hat is part of the identity. Hats express who you are, your mood and personality.”
Men and women have worn hats for a longer period of time than not. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that hats started to decline. “There was a bit of a hat craze in New York in the late ’80s to mid-’90s,” says Janet Sikirica, a Dobbs Ferry milliner, one of more than the 50 milliners who participated in this exhibit.
The good news: hats are making a comeback. The current hat-mania is attributed to the most recent royal wedding, great interest in the royal family, and general fascination with everything British. Downton Abbey, anyone?
This fascination is bringing the hat back into focus as an art form. “Milliners work the way any artist does. They need to understand material, aesthetics. A hat is a moving, 3-D artwork: front, sides, and back,” says Reckling. Designer Janet Sikirica proves the point. “Every hat I make is handmade, not one machine stitch. The simple ones are the most difficult. The art is in the simplicity.” As an art form, hats just may be the happiest creative expression. Schwartz says: “A hat is a mood-chaser. Put on a hat, and you are a different person.”
As if two grand floors featuring 210 hats spanning three centuries of fashion weren’t enough to make your head spin, there is a display of vintage hats that visitors are welcome to try on and wear while at the show. Don’t miss the replica of a milliner’s workshop recreated in what was once the vault in the converted bank building now home to the ArtsWestchester gallery and offices. The small gift shop is worth a visit.
In 1959, Christian Dior said, “Without hats, there would be no civilization.” Having seen this exhibit, I believe he was right.
ArtsWestchester is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12-5 p.m. “HATtitude: The Milliner in Culture & Couture” is on view through April 12. In conjunction with the exhibit, ArtsWestchester is offering a series of free lectures and family programs through March, including creative workshops for children. To request a docent tour or register for a lecture or workshop, email Lbanks@artswestchester.org or call 428-4220, ext. 330.
To learn more about the milliners and their art, visit Millinersguild.org. For a sneak preview, visit some of the featured designers’ websites before you see the show: Evetta Petty (harlemsheaven.com); Carlos Hats (carloshats.com); Patrick Kavanaugh (Madhatster.com).