Commentary: Hats have a long history as art | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Hats have a long history as art

May 5, 2017

Nancy Kranzberg

Hats off to the St. Louis Art Museum for presenting "Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade." When I think of Degas, I think of young dancers, but this exhibition is the first one to explore Degas' fascination with the subject of millinery. The museum calendar booklet described the exhibition as focusing on the intersection between the artist's avant-garde work and a remarkable golden age in the history of millinery in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The museum's description of the exhibition says that during this time there were around 1,000 millinery shops in the French capital with milliners creating extravagantly trimmed hats in a wide range of materials including silk, velvet, felt, artificial flowers and bird plumage. This exhibition focuses on Degas' treatment of women making and buying hats.as well as his imaging of the hats themselves.

The show focuses on women's millinery, but there is also a section on men's hats that examines the ubiquity of the top hat, bowler and boater in Parisian male fashion and the picturing of these subjects by Degas, Toulouse­ Lautrec, Morisot and others.

There are hat museums around the world such as the one in Portland, Oregon and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an incredible collection of hats. Our own Missouri History Museum, according to Shannon Meyer, Senior Curator, has more than 700 hats in its collection.

Shannon Meyer also says, "Hats were a very important part of fashion, particularly for women, because their size and trimmings were a good indicator of social status. Some of my favorite hats and bonnets in the collection have exotic feathers of entire birds on them. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the popularity of feathers and whole birds in millinery contributed to the decline of several species. The development of the Audubon Society helped to put a stop to the killing of birds for the sake of fashion."

The history of hats in art and hats in general is never ending. There's even a national hat day in January and of course Forest Park Forever has its annual hat luncheon.

An article on the internet talks about the most famous works of art with hats in them. On the list are VanEyck's portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini who is wearing a typical merchant's summer hat and in Rembrandt's "An Old Man in Military Costume," the man wears a 1630 plumed hat consisting of an ostrich feather standing proud against a velvet cap. Of course there is Rene Magritte's famous bowler hat in his "Son of Man," a self-portrait and Vincent Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear" from 1889 in which he wears a sapphire blue cap with black fur and a bandaged ear. Frida Kahlo's many head pieces with flowers and silk make every list.

Helena Sheffield in her "Brief History of Hats" or the "Art of Wearing Hats" says the earliest head piece ever discovered comes from 3300 B.C. She sites some significant dates such as 8OO A.D. when St. Clement, patron saint of hatters accidentally invented felt, leading the way for milliners. She also notes that the term milliners comes from the high fashion in Milan.

Brett and Kate McKay in their article "Bringing Back the Hat" say, "Up until the 1950s men were rarely seen out without a hat upon their head." They go on to discuss the Fedora, the Homberg, the Bowler and the Derby, and how to wear each hat. The pair says, "Hats are due for a full resurgence. They are both functional and stylish. They can cover a bad hair day or a receding hair line as Frank Sinatra did.  

Young Anna Zeitland who is a milliner in Nashville, Tennessee and has her own business says, "Hats are a great way to express your individual style. There's been a great resurgence of hats in recent years, thanks partly to the Royal Wedding. Fashion has become more democratized. It's all about individualism." Pharrell and Lady Gaga have done the most for the hat since Jackie 0.

Another internet article talks about the history of African American women in hats and says, "Elaborately adorned headdresses hold enormous significance in African rituals. American slaves continued the custom of wearing geometric designs, attaching feathers and adding beaded jewelry to straw and fiber hats before attending church. In addition to instilling pride and confidence, the hats remind the wearers to carry themselves like queens.

Hats are often worn by those representing different religions such as the yarmulke worn by some Jews, veiling in many Christian religions, different head coverings worn by Muslims and the Amish and Mennonites advocate that women should wear head coverings at all times.

I haven't even mentioned crowns, helmets, or sports hats or all the songs such as "In your Easter Bonnet" from "Easter Parade" and Merle Haggard's, "My Own Kind of Hat" or Dr. Seuss's "Cat in the Hat" or "Red Riding Hood."

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.