Skip to content

A Tip of the Hats

March 15, 2010

‘Woman who love to play with fantasy are naturally disposed to a hat,” explains Melbourne collector Alison Waters (see My Collection). “A hat makes you feel marvellous and lifts your mood instantly. It’s an accessory that completes everything, not just the face.”

Waters has a degree in anthropology, so she speaks with some authority on the social history of this fashion accessory.

She points to a photograph of women riding bicycles in German-occupied France while wearing elaborate hats. In that political climate, she says, this was a subtle act of defiance.

Her theory is supported by Christian Dior. “Without hats we would have no civilisation,” he once said.

These days a collection of hats can be considered a potential investment as well as a social statement. Interest in vintage fashion has rapidly increased over the past few decades, especially during the past five years. Designer dresses may have stolen the limelight but other sections of the wardrobe, notably shoes, handbags and jewellery, have been swept up in the tidal wave of nostalgia.

These days hats can be added to the list. The great Australian hat revival can largely be attributed to the Melbourne and Sydney racing carnivals where the fascinator is now considered de rigueur. There are now women of all ages who like to wear hats at other social events plus a few with enough style to wear them on a daily basis.

It was once possible to pick up vintage hats for $5 at any op shop, such was the lack of interest in collecting them. Now they are mostly to be found in vintage clothing stores from $50 upwards, and on eBay for increasingly optimistic amounts. The most desirable hats, bearing labels by Chanel, Schiaparelli or Lilly Dache, are regarded as antiques. Prices for these start at $1000 and keep going. Condition is critical, especially when delicate adornments such as veils and feathers are involved. If they are still kept in the original box, their value is considerably increased.

Some of the most famous of all hats are Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist designs of the 1930s, especially her collaborations with Salvador Dali. One resembled a shoe and another a lamb chop. The lobster hat was inspired by surrealist Gerard de Nerval, who was famous for taking his pet crustacean for a walk along the avenues of Paris. The original hats would be museum pieces but copies were made and these are very desirable in their own right.

The modern era of hat design begins with Coco Chanel, who trained as a milliner before turning to clothing. The Chanel cloche hat, as popularised by Hollywood star Louise Brooks, was designed to be worn with the fashionable bobbed hair of the early 1920s. As recently as the early 1970s it was still possible to pick up an original Chanel in vintage clothing stalls in London and Europe. These wonderfully simple designs have increased in value by as much as a hundredfold since then.

Chanel hats were widely copied at the time, apparently with her blessing. Any that look like hers but have no label are likely to be imitations, worth a lot less but still worth collecting.

Lilly Dache was one of the most famous milliners in the world. Born in France, she moved to America in 1924. Her famous shop in New York had a gold fitting room for blondes, a silver fitting room for brunettes. She retired in 1968 but her designs from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s are much in demand today.

There are also Australian designers of note. Thomas Harrison, a milliner born in Ballarat, created a memorable range of hats for Melbourne socialites, often using rich fabrics such as velvet. These are considered classics of the art. The NGV holds a collection of his work.

This is one area of collectables where the hats being made now are considered as valuable as vintage items. Two modern Australian milliners considered collectable are Greg Ladner from Melbourne and Naomi Goodsir, a Sydney artist trained in London.

Collectors who actually wear their hats, including Alison Waters, usually include modern designs as well as the classics. In her case one hat can be a bit of both.

One of her sentimental favourites was made recently, using a section of a 100-year-old jaguar-skin rug, a family heirloom that was so badly worn it could no longer be used. She asked Greg Ladner to turn it into a retro-styled hat inspired by Bob Dylan’s 1966 song, Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat. This was the style made famous by former first lady Jackie Kennedy.

Goodsir’s work is equally fanciful, verging on sculpture or, as Waters describes the one she owns, “like a paper nautilus shell”. The work of these designers is not cheap but their hats are tipped to appreciate greatly in value.

My collection

“I never step out without a hat,” says Melbourne collector Alison Waters, seen here in one of her favourites, a veiled number by Chanel. A former student of anthropology who now runs her own public relations firm, Waters is known as “The Hat Lady” to her friends and clients. She has about 160 in her collection, enough to hold themed parties where everyone is encouraged to wear something on their heads. She’s noticed that male guests are more than happy to get in the spirit.

She first started picking up vintage numbers in the early 1970s when she worked for the famous Biba boutique. Genuine Chanel hats were easy to find then but are much more difficult now. She says it’s still possible, however, to pick up beautiful (but usually anonymous) hats for $10 in op shops.

Her collection is largely inspired by her love of reading. Her Dobbs Fedora is similar to those worn by the formidable Lady Duff, a character in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises.

author: James Cockington
source: The Sydney Morning Herald
first published: March 19, 2008

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: