How mad hatters took over fashion

As if the dramatic headgear worn by Pharrell Williams and Lady Gaga wasn’t proof enough that extravagant hats are on the rise, take a look at New York Fashion Week and its Spring/Summer 2015 collections. Towering straw creations at Donna Karan’s show, a dizzying array of extreme, eccentric styles at Thom Browne – the sheer showmanship of the millinery on display was undeniable.

These show-stopping creations were the work of British milliner Stephen Jones, who is also the curator of Headonism, a London Fashion Week showcase in association with Wedgwood that champions emerging British millinery. Jones, who has been at the epicentre of millinery for several decades, has clients including Dita Von Teese, Mick Jagger and Rihanna and has worked with an array of designers from Zandra Rhodes and Marc Jacobs, to Giles Deacon, John Galliano and Rei Kawakubo.

The current resurgence of flamboyant hats must feel familiar to Jones, who came to prominence in the 1980s when he brought the fantastical, outlandish spirit of London’s clubland to his designs. “I think for us the Blitz era was fantasy,” Jones tells BBC Culture. “It might have been subversive but we didn’t think so. Other people got upset by it and said we were ‘parading like peacocks’, but for us, fashion was our drug. At that time millinery was seen as something very esoteric and quite archaic,” recalls Jones. “I reintroduced it for a young audience. People loved being transformed and transported by something wonderful on their heads.”

Jones points to iconic moments in hat design as inspirational – Salvador Dalí’s 1937 collaboration with Elsa Schiaparelli is one of his all-time favourites. The surrealist ‘shoe hat’ was ground-breaking, absurdist and, well, bonkers. The British particularly love hats, says the milliner, and points to the inventiveness of the wartime ‘make-do-and-mend’ ethos, with stylish, forward-thinking women “making a turban out of their husband’s waistcoat”.

Yet for all its eccentric, outlandish moments, millinery also has a venerable heritage that is all about conformity and formality: hats have long been worn to comply with sober dress codes at church weddings, garden parties or other formal events. In Jones’s view the national love of hats is largely down to the Queen and the late Queen Mother, “the patron saints of hatters”, and certainly over the centuries hats have acted as cultural and class signifiers.

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