Five hundred years ago, the best hats always came from the Duchy of Milan, the area now known as Northern Italy. In England, the Milanese who made fine hats – which were constructed from exquisite felt, straw, and fabric – became known as milliners. Thus the term millinery was born. Fast forward to the early-20th century, when milliners began inviting clients to their salons for intimate appointments to browse through and try on headpieces, just as couturiers did.
The rich history of headwear is celebrated in an exhibition, “Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones,” on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, now through February 3, 2013. The show, which includes more than 250 headpieces from the last 900 years, debuted at the V&A in 2009 and made a stop at the Bard Graduate Center earlier this year. The exhibition was curated by the famed milliner Stephen Jones in conjunction with the V&A’s fashion curator, Oriole Cullen.
Journeying through the beautiful, sculptural, and sometimes straight out bizarre world of millinery, the exhibition traces specific hats from inspiration to conception to fruition. Among the artful pieces showcased are an embroidered nightcap from the mid 1700s, an embellished bonnet from 1835, and Elsa Schiaparelli’s Surrealist shoe hat from 1938. Hats by contemporary milliners like Hussein Chalayan, Philip Treacy, and Jones – who has topped the heads of Princess Diana and Madonna with his whimsical creations – are also on display.
To celebrate the exhibition’s New England run, the Peabody Essex Museum has placed some 40 hats throughout its galleries to give insight into the cultural significance of hats. A kingfisher feather bridal headdress is housed with the institution’s Chinese art collection, a brass and abalone inlay fireman’s helmet is positioned against Japanese art, and a Unangax hunting hat is on display along with the museum’s Native American art pieces. Four New England milliners are also featured.
This exhibition is sure to up the Peabody Essex Museum’s fashion credibility; it had another big score last May when fashion icon Iris Apfel donated 600 pieces of her wardrobe to the institution.
Click on the slideshow for highlights of the headpieces featured in “Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones,” on view at the Peabody Essex Museum from September 8 to February 3.
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