Essay: The Mad Hatters’ Methods

by Katharine Zarrella on 18 November 2013

Writer Katharine Zarrella draws on her on love affair with chapeaux to explore why Blow bothered with all those hats.

Writer Katharine Zarrella draws on her on love affair with chapeaux to explore why Blow bothered with all those hats.

Image from the 'Isabella Blow: fashion Galore!' exhibition catalogue, shot by Nick Knight

Why did Isabella Blow bother with all those hats? The late eccentric was seldom seen without one. Sometimes, it was Alexander McQueen's antlers, or Erik Halley's deep pink lobster hat. More often, it was one of Philip Treacy's wildly plumed creations with feathers that swept around her eyes, or some sculpted object, like the milliner's wedge-cut saucers that barely revealed her mouth. No doubt, chapeaux were her calling card - the pieces de résistance of her considered, no holds barred ensembles. But for Blow, hats were more than just the cherries on top of her mad looks. 'I don't use a hat as a prop,' the editor once said. 'I use it as part of me. If I am feeling really low, I go and see Philip [Treacy], cover my face, and feel fantastic.'

Unfortunately, Treacy's hats alone weren't able to save Blow from her dark bouts of depression, which led to her tragic suicide in 2007. But her assessment of their mood-spiking properties shouldn't be dismissed. As an obsessive hat wearer myself (I can't remember the last time I left my apartment bare-headed) I'm inclined to agree with Blow about hats' transformative powers and intangible allure. They possess a profound influence that ordinary accessories - like shoes, handbags, or jewellery - do not. Depending on their size, they can change the way one moves or holds her head. Sometimes, a great hat requires a balancing act. Blow, who had a keen awareness of her own body and often played with proportions to alter her silhouette, often likened her toppers to a 'cheaper and less painful form of plastic surgery.' Though, I'd argue that one of Treacy's couture confections is the cost equivalent of, say, a face-lift.

'When you wear a hat, you start walking around just a little bit taller,' offered London-based milliner Piers Atkinson - who, I must note, has crafted no fewer than ten of the headpieces in my personal collection. 'You lift your neck because you have this fabulous thing on your head, and you're trying to show it off. It changes your posture, especially if it's a really large one,' he added. 'But I think the biggest part of it is the response. You're projecting an awful lot of confidence if you wear a fancy hat, and there's something quite attractive about that. Hats are still relatively special - it's not like the forties when everybody's wearing them - so when you walk into a room with a great hat, everyone stops and says wow.'

I can attest, in our modern day age of fast fashion and mass production, donning a statement hat will earn a few (if not many) stares. I'd like to think that they're all of the aforementioned wow variety, but more often than not, it's clear that these glances are of sheer confusion. That's the case here in New York, anyway, which makes me believe that, when it comes to mainstream fashion, adventurous headwear is the most under-utilised breed of accessory. Atkinson suggests that the hat's fall from favour is tied to the rise of labour-intensive (and expensive) hairstyles. 'Over the past 25 years, hair has become hugely important,' he said. 'So you're not going to go and spend all that money on highlights and then put a hat over the top of them. But the other thing is cost,' he continued. 'We've gone through a period of fashion becoming very much part of the high street, and there's no cheap way of making a nice hat.'

Hats are investment pieces. But unlike the latest platform pump, or an 'it' bag, they rarely go out of style. Many of my favourite hats are vintage turbans, trilbies, or cloches that date back 1920s. And even when I do splurge on a new design, the cost seems justified. A hat is sturdy. It transcends trends and seasons. It's meant to stay. Not to mention, it's a change agent that makes me feel as though I could take on Goliath.

Hats serve as a kind of protective armor to the outside world. With their veils, brims, and various other protrusions (I have one leather beret with a row of deadly silver spikes, and a velvet lip hat garnished with a crystal-tipped cigarette that could take out your eye), hats can simultaneously attract, and repel. They're demure and aggressive. They demand attention, but also project a much-desired air of mystery. What lies beneath the soft shadow of a giant ostrich plume?

'It’s the old-fashioned cock-and-hen story, the mating dance. Men love hats. They love it because it’s something they have to take off in order to fuck you.'

Blow's hats were also objects of provocation. During a 2002 interview with The Guardian, she described them as sensual, erotic displays, and insisted, 'The hat is a means to an end, a marriage contract. It’s everything. It’s a sensual thing – the idea of catching somebody like a spider in a web. It’s the old-fashioned cock-and-hen story, the mating dance. Men love hats. They love it because it’s something they have to take off in order to fuck you.'

She was onto something. In his book Blow by Blow, Isabella's husband, Detmar, recalls the 'enormous hat festooned with ostrich feathers,' that she wore when he met her at Emma Roper-Curzon's wedding. 'I was dumbstruck by her appearance,' he wrote. 'But then again, I imagine everybody in the whole cathedral was.' Rather fittingly, the first words he said to her were, 'I love your hat.'

Contrastingly, Blow's extravagant headgear kept people out. 'Fashion is a vampiric thing, it's the hoover on your brain. That's why I wear the hats, to keep everyone away from me,' she admitted in the Guardian interview. 'They say, 'Oh, can I kiss you?' I say, 'No, thank you very much. That's why I've worn the hat. Goodbye.' I don't want to be kissed by all and sundry. I want to be kissed by the people I love.'

Atkinson, who had met Blow on a few occasions with designer Zandra Rhodes, recalls having to literally speak to the editor through whatever feathered or veiled barrier she had selected that day. 'But a lot of it wasn't just for her, it was for her friends,' he explained. 'She was a muse and a champion of male womenswear designers who couldn't necessarily go out and wear the work they were promoting. When Isabella put on designs by Philip Treacy and McQueen [both of whom were her discoveries and protégées], it was an explosion. It became something more than the sum of their power.'

Perhaps most importantly, though, Blow wore her hats - they never wore her. ''The spirit in which she wears a hat is one of the things that inspires me most,' Treacy told the New York Times in 2004. Many of her pieces, like Treacy's Spring/Summer 2003 pop art hat, which was embellished with gaping red and black mouths that bounced on long sprigs of wire, amplified her already dramatic gestures, as if to punctuate her clever quips or grand statements.

But back to my initial query: Why did Blow wear her outré crowns? Because they allowed her to morph into a new incarnation of herself on a daily basis. They cast spells of awe upon those who encountered her. And maybe they gave her comfort, confidence, and a sense of security, too. Though, as is often the case, the simplest answer is another question: Why the hell not?



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Essay: Hat by Yohji Yamamoto

11 February 2004
Shelf Appeal: Penny Martin on Yohji Yamamoto's elegant reworking of the coolie hat.
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