Fresh from the sumptuous Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House in London, my mind is reeling with images of stunning, ground-breaking clothes. The exhibition features 100 pieces from Blow’s private collection and highlights the work of designers she cultivated, notably Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy.
Treacy’s hats are phenomenal. They are works of art, flamboyant, dramatic installations which burst from the head or perch on top of it in the form of lobsters, antlers, satellite dishes, spiked helmets, pheasants, castles and an eighteenth century galleon. What qualities would you attribute to a woman who wears such creations? Confidence, daring, style, a sense of fun, artistic aplomb for a start, I imagine.
Jo March’s mood cap
It’s a black woollen cap with a cheerful red bow, its strong colours reflecting Jo’s strong and upbeat personality, and its position on her head telling the world how her writing is going.
Pulled down low indicates she is hard at work while pushed rakishly askew says she is caught up in the excitement of the creative flow and plucked off and thrown to the floor tells a tale of deep despair.
The banker’s wife’s bonnet of shame
In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the character Mrs Bulstrode, who is married to the town’s banker, enjoys a showy style of dressing. She likes lots of bling and has a penchant for much-adorned hats which decorate large bows of hair.
When her hubby’s shady dealings are revealed and he faces public humiliation, she shows her support for him through her choice of headgear. She brushes down her hair, removes her statement hat and replaces it with a plain bonnet cap.
She presents herself to her husband without a word, but lets her plain and subdued appearance tell him she knows of his disgrace and that she will be loyal to him. Poor Mrs B. She probably never wore a splashy hat again.
Jane Eyre’s so square
Jane Eyre, in Charlotte Bronte’s novel, has a little bit of fun (just for a moment – she’s not exactly a fun person) with the choice of head covering for her wedding. She’s marrying a rich man, Edward Rochester, who wants to buy her extravagant dresses of satin and lace and shower her with jewels, alpha-male behaviour which she staunchly resists.
She’s going to mischievously tell him that she intends to wear ‘a square of unembroidered blond’ as her wedding hat rather than the gorgeous veil he has bought for her. (Pause while all you bridezillas pick yourselves up from the floor).
She gets quite a kick, a bit of an erotic charge actually, imagining how he’s going to react and the teasing exchange that will follow. This little scene tells us so much about her – her pride, her stubbornness, her authenticity and her plain and deferential appearance which conceals intense passion.
Which headdress does she wear? Ah, you’ll have to read the book.
Bowling through business
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the bowler hat came to symbolise a certain type of business man and a certain approach to life. It was used to represent stuffiness and pomposity, the rigid old guard which was being challenged by the upstart younger generation.
Bernard Cribbins’ 1962 recording of Hole in the Ground captures this class war in a lively bit of story-telling which makes you smile time and time again. We hear two voices, the man-in-the-street voice of the one digging the hole in the road and the posh, officious tones of man in the bowler hat who interrogates him about what he’s doing and tells him he’s doing it all wrong.
Guess where the man in the bowler hat ends up?
The Randy hat trick
A final teaser, in every sense of the word. Randy Newman’s much-covered song You Can Keep Your Hat On, from his 1972 album Sail Away, presents a playful, sexy scenario in which a man asks his lover to remove all her clothes except her hat. He orchestrates the striptease with precise instructions.
There is an unexpected hint at a backstory when he refers to suspicious minds and people talking, saying that their love is wrong, which adds a little bit of danger and a touch more spice to a spicy scene.
She is taking the instructions, but she is a partner in this game. No wimpy square of unembroidered blond for her. Perhaps she is pleased to keep on the hat, not only because it adds to her sassiness, but also because taking off your headgear, as every girl knows, can reveal a bad case of hat hair.
So what kind of hat is she wearing? Presumably, it’s one which adds to her allure, a hat with attitude. A Philip Treacy creation, perhaps something with net and feathers, would be just the job