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Hats Made Me: An exhibition exploring historic headwear

Hats Made Me: An exhibition exploring historic headwear

Why wear a hat? The Culture Trust have just the answer. Their latest blockbuster exhibition, Hats Made Me, is showing in Luton, the former capital of the British hat industry

Apart from hiding a bad hair day, there are four key reasons to wear something on your head according to curator Yona Lesger, fresh from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. They are "practical", "symbolic", "aesthetic" and "transformative."

With over 200 heady exhibits of caps, bonnets, headpieces, helmets, pillboxes, tiaras, balaclavas, bowlers and hats of all types on display at the Culture Trust's Hats Made Me, take your pick. 

Practical hats

On the practical side come sports hats and hats to keep warm, dry or cool, including an early 20th-century kha-mauk from Myanmar.

kha-mauk from Myanmar - Hats Made Me exhibition

An early 20th century kha-mauk from Myanmar. Image courtesy of Culture Trust Luton.

For safety, the most innovative of headwear must be the Hövding’s 3 Helmet by the Swedish industrial design students Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin. It’s claimed to be the safest cycling headwear in the world, with cutting-edge sensory, an airbag and Bluetooth technology to notify emergency contacts. It looks like the “must have” in cycling fashion—a polyester, black chocker—until the air bag blows up around the head at which point appearance is irrelevant.

Hövding’s 3 Helmet, Courtesy of Hövding and Alexander Crispin

Hövding’s 3 Helmet. Courtesy of Hövding and Alexander Crispin.

Symbolic hats

Hats are also symbolic, denoting standing, culture and religion. While many religious headpieces might not pass as "hats", they are undeniably headwear. Hats Made Me covers a multitude of cultures from durags, Irish Catholic communion veils, Ghanian ceremonial pieces, Muslim prayer caps, Sikh turbans to the Quaker bonnet.

Quaker bonnet

A Quaker bonnet. Image courtesy of Culture Trust Luton and Aleksandra Warchol. 

Regarding status, the purple, velvet hat worn by the paramount chief Massapacki in Northern Province, Sierra Leone raises the stakes, with its royal colour, gold braiding and the words "High Class President Cap Bombay" inside. 

Velvet hat worn by paramount chief Massapacki in Northern Province, Sierra Leone

Velvet hat worn by paramount chief Massapacki in Northern Province, Sierra Leone. Image courtesy of Culture Trust and Phil Giles

King Charles’ crown is not part of the exhibition, but Vauxhall Motors’ Miss Spectacular tiara is there. With a nod to Luton’s other industrial heritage—car manufacturing—the sparkling headpiece with the club’s initials in blue stones once signified the status of female beauty in a pageant (now found dubious). And yet, the tiara has not lost its appeal as every fan of Frozen (the musical and movie) will vouch.

Vauxhall Motors' Miss Spectacular Tiara - hats made me exhibition

Vauxhall Motors' Miss Spectacular Tiara. Image courtesy of Culture Trust Luton and Aleksandra Warchol.

Madonna continued the craze, parading an ornate tiara in her Dark Ballet music video. Made of gold, glass, cotton and silk and designed by Lara Jensen, it just happens to be in the exhibition.

Aesthetic hats

Ladies Day at Ascot, weddings and garden parties are renowned for impractical hats when headwear is purely aesthetic and often causes a stir. Hats Made Me is full of inspiration for these events with an abundance of striking and quirky headwear on display.

This is where designers come into their own with names like Paul Stafford who conceived the COVID-19 hat made from face shields donated to front-line workers during the first lockdown and Piers Atkinson who created the idiosyncratic, cherry headband worn by celebrity singers like Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Doja Cat. 

Piers Atkinson cherry headband - hats made me exhibition

Piers Atkinson cherry headband. Image courtesy of Culture Trust Luton and Aleksandra Warchol

Christian Dior’s straw boater, an homage to the famous Andalusian Cordovan hat, was created by Stephen Jones in collaboration with Spanish hatmakers Fernández y Roche (known for hand-crafted hats). Hong Kong designer Awon Golding, now Head Millinery Designer for Lock & Co has frequently designed for celebrities. Golding’s “Spectra” headpiece is inspired by the spectrum of colours created by refracting light.

Golding’s “Spectra” headpiece - Hats Made Me exhibition

Golding’s “Spectra” headpiece. Image courtesy of Culture Trust Luton and Aleksandra Warchol.

Philip Treacy’s “OC 848” hat is a large, brightly coloured affair inspired by jockey silks. Treacy became the first milliner in 70 years to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the governing body of French fashion, to show a collection.

Cultural hats

Then there are cultural factors which come into play with hats. The Uptown Yardie’s crown inspired by the beaver fur hats was popular with reggae artists in the 1970s and 1980s. And the black tall hat worn by the Ladies of Llangollen is a recognisable addition to the Welsh national costume. 

The Uptown Yardie hat - hats made me exhibition

The Uptown Yardie's crown. Image courtesy of Uptown Yardie. 

This part of the exhibition merges seamlessly with the "transformative" and here film and musical lovers can spot their favourites. Amongst many, there is Batman’s unmistakable, black balaclava and various Dr Who and Star Wars classics. On the theatrical side are Kate Sharma’s teal velvet hat from Bridgerton, designed by theatrical milliner Sophie Lambe, and milliner Liz Crossman’s outlandish ship headdress for opera diva Katherina Cavalieri in Amadeus.

Batman's mask - hats made me exhibition

Batman's black balaclava. Image courtesy of

To top it all milliner Flora McLean (House of Flora) who specialises in avant-garde creations, introduces material not usually associated with millinery. The neon Perspex visors have been a hit with mega stars like Beyonce whose red visor featured in her Vogue photoshoot. 

Cover image courtesy of Richard Hubert Smith.

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