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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Hats Off: Interview with Elizabeth McCrumb, Keeper of Applied Art at the Ulster Museum
by John Mathews
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John Mathews: In the past the hat has been used as an indication of wealth or status within society, for example at the turn of the twentieth century you had top hats referring to the upper classes and the peak cap to the working classes. Could you explain a little bit about how these status symbols develop?
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Elizabeth McCrumb: Like all things within fashion it's a combination of various elements that become intertwined, to make people aware of what they wear. One of them is pure practicality, in the past when less people had cars and warmth in their homes it was much more important to keep your head covered. People knew quite accurately that a lot of heat escapes from the head and in that sense people were a lot more sensible but on a whole we have stopped wearing hats now. There was in the past the whole etiquette thing wrapped up in religious observances, of woman wearing a hat in church. There was also the whole etiquette of uncovering your head in the presence of your betters and men doffing their hats to ladies and so forth. The crucial thing is the mixture of fashion and etiquette that when you went outside you wore a hat. Codes of etiquette develop partly to define and protect notions of modesty and morality of a culture. In the Victorian era if a lady appeared hatless in the street, the most charitable conclusion that those who saw her could make was that some unforeseen drama or tragedy had suddenly overtaken her. Intrinsically the hat had to become aesthetically part of fashion; you had the cloche hat for example in the 1920's which actually made to have to cut their hair because it wouldn't fit otherwise. You occasionally have the odd time when the aesthetics don't seem to work. In Edwardian times you had these huge cartwheel hats with quite a slender figure which made them look like giant mushrooms. Before then you had this attitude that woman should be seen and not heard and so you had the bonnet which hid their face and you had the shawl which swathed the body and the wide skirts which hid their legs.
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Then there is the whole masculine end of millinery which is bound up in military splendour. What we forget is that the hat up until the 1950's was an essential part of men's outdoor clothing. If you think back to the films of Hollywood in the 1930's the trilby hat would be worn even by gumshoes before they went out to catch villains. Now the ethical question has pretty much gone along with the doffing of the hat. Now the only time people wear hats is on high occasions such as race days and weddings. It is those hats that the present day milliners tend to only cater for.
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J.M: When do you think the disappearance of hats took place within contemporary culture?
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E.M: I think it was with the whole youth culture of the 1960's because that was the core period apart from the 20's where there was a lot of similarities, where you got a newly independent and very much younger section of society that were dominant. In the 1960's you had the first generation of free 3rd level education students, with a huge amount of people from all walks of life coming out of universities and not just the wealthy. There was a very young market for the designers and this new optimism of the space age, plastics and everything that was supposed to make life easier. Going against the etiquette of the 1950's when the fashionable woman was over 30, tight waisted and formally dressed. The dominant fashion was the mini skirt and part of that was an emphasis on hair. So you would either get the big back combed hair or very sharp Sassoon type cuts and particularly with the big hair you couldn't easily put a hat over it. It didn't fit with the aesthetics of it, which was the beginning of the end for the hat. There was also a sharp decline in church attendance which also cut down the everyday use of hat wearing. Before hatters like John Green who was based in Wellington Place would have made hats which would went with a winter suit as a daily accessory. Along with couture dress makers these people would have shut up shop. Everything was getting cheaper and they weren't giving society on the whole what they wanted, no matter how good quality it was. Designers like Philip Tracey are now going the opposite way, where the hat is the dominant factor and the outfit is designed around it.
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J.M: The hat within Northern Ireland has obvious political and social connotations, could you tell us a little bit about the bowler hat and how it has become to be used as a symbol of identity here.
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E.M: The bowler hat started as a sporting accessory and a lot of male hats began as riding hats which slowly made their way into mainstream fashion. Through the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle classes what men wanted to look was respectable. Bowler hats came in around 1850 and began to be worn with suits. It came in casually and became more and more formal with the dark suit, becoming the uniform of the city gent. Because it has become fossilised you have it surviving in cases like the orange order. There is a company in London which made the original bowler called Locks which is still going. Curiously enough you also get the bowler hat worn contemporarily by women in Bolivia. You still get men wearing hats now but it's almost a sign of unconformity for a young man to wear a hat apart from baseball hats.
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J.M: How do you think the climates and landscapes of a particular region uniquely dictate the ways in which hats are designed and worn?
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E.M: Since a lot of people now, who are beginning to go bald and shave their heads, they do actually get cold and wet, so you get a lot of cap wearing. I remember poor William Hague being completely mocked for wearing a baseball cap. He did rather pathetically say 'I'm bald and I do get cold and wet' but what he did wrong was wear it backwards.
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J.M: Could you tell me a little bit about the development of military parade headwear and why some of it is so outlandish as to be barely unfunctionable such as the Busby hat which the Queens Guards wear and is like a large dome made out of bear fur.
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E.M: It does seem quite extraordinary what type of military helmets are worn and used. I was in London looking at the lifeguard uniform and they had a helmet with a full horse's tail and another from Paris which had also got three lots of feathers and gilding, which was quite extraordinary, it had the shape of a Mohican punk hairstyle. Cavalry officers in particular seem to be very peacock like, in France and Austria in the nineteenth century you would have worn a corset, so that you would have a very slim upright figure on a horse. It was perfectly normal to go to a Calvary school at the age of twelve and the first thing they would do would be to be laced into a corset and wear these exuberant hats. To look so splendid that you thought you were invincible.
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J.M: The term milliner dates from the sixteenth century and refers to the importation of hats and haberdashery from Milan in Italy. Can you think of any other terms that have worked there way into everyday language that originate in hat making?
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E.M: A milliner was traditionally someone who dealt in lace, cotton, linen and caps and slowly came to refer to just hats. The term 'mad as a hatter' comes from the use of mercuric nitrate which was used in the felting process of making hats. It was a highly toxic chemical and one of the symptoms of its use was mental illness because the oxide severely attacked the brain cells. Hatters actually had very short lifespan because of this.
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