"Hats are a passport to another world," declares Stephen Jones, the greatest milliner of his generation. Catherine St Germans considers his show of fanciful headgear at the V&A ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2008
In the 1930s, when the great French milliner Simone Mirman was at work, it was said there were almost as many hat shops in Paris as cafés. Mirman, who moved to England just before the second world war, created hats for Christian Dior, and was granted a royal warrant by the then Queen (later the Queen Mother). When Queen Elizabeth II assumed the throne, Mirman became her most important milliner and was granted a warrant by her too. Her most memorable royal commission was the hat that the Queen wore to the Prince of Wales’s investiture in 1969, her take on an early Tudor head-dress.
She was said to have been milliner to the last generation of women who would not contemplate leaving the house without a hat: a generation who considered their hat to be of equal consequence to their choice of stockings, shoes or handbag. Women who would say: “A hat makes all the difference.” Which is exactly the opposite to my generation, and goes some way to explaining why, when Mirman died, in August, aged 96, her name was no longer widely known.
Stephen Jones told me about Simone Mirman. Jones, who is 51, is the greatest milliner of his generation. He was the first English milliner to work for a French fashion house, and has also made hats for John Galliano at Christian Dior for the past decade and for Galliano’s own label for over 15 years. He has collaborated with every designer of note and is currently making hats for, among others, Marc Jacobs and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. When Carla Bruni caused a sensation on a state visit to London last March, wearing a grey suit with a tiny, triangular pillbox hat gracefully perched on the side of her head, her headpiece was from Dior, designed by the remarkable Mr Jones.
We forget how important milliners are. On the door of Jones’s atelier is a sign which says “Modist”. For several hundred years, it was the female modistes who ruled, not the male dressmakers. Modistes were milliners and more. They came to prominence after Marie Antoinette’s arrival at the French court in Versailles. Always women, they wielded absolute power: men were mere couturiers or “cutters” who made the undercarriage, while the female modistes did the fun bit: the trimmings around the neckline, sleeves and hem. And they made the hats. Rose Bertin was Marie Antoinette’s modiste, and became so famous for her styling that she was known as the “Minister of Fashion”. She may have been the first celebrity fashion figure.
The modern world would have loved Bertin, but we have Stephen Jones to adore instead. Two years ago he was asked by the V&A in London to curate a major exhibition of millinery. It opens later this month, with more than 300 hats on display. Some were worn by the celebrated, others by the unknown: a Tudor serf’s flat, knitted cap will be shown alongside Marlene Dietrich’s iconic beret, worn with such élan that, Jones says, it looked like “a brushstroke on the page”. (As Frank Sinatra once said: “Cock your hat, angles are attitudes.”) Jones believes a beret is “the ultimate symbol of chic”, and the T-shirt of the hat world. “Who does not suit one?” Well, the Queen, perhaps.
When the V&A invited him to design a collection inspired by the hats in its extensive archive, Jones took one of the first he stumbled upon, “Langoustine Fantasia” by Simone Mirman, and created “Anemone Fantasia” (see above). Mirman had the knack of knowing how the smallest adjustment could turn the adequate into the sublime. Her original, however, was a surprise. “You think fashion now is extreme,” Jones says. “But what went before was really crazy; actually, it was completely bonkers.” His take on this hat, it has to be said, is equally bonkers: fuchsia-pink organdie anemone tendrils fly out of a sandpaper seabed.
The novelist Alison Lurie wrote: “Whatever is worn on the head is a sign of the mind beneath it.” Stephen Jones disagrees. “Whatever is worn on the head,” he says, “is a sign of what a person would like to be. Hats are a passport to another world.” What does “Anemone Fantasia” say you would like to be, I wonder, as I look at it in Jones’s atelier in Paris? Noticed? Certainly I know that whenever I wear one of his hats, I feel unequalled. Jones once told me to make sure that I wear a new hat around the house. “Get used to it”, he said, “before you go out. Then you will wear it with nonchalance.” And that is when a hat really does make all the difference.
Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones London V&A, February 24th to May 10th 2009
Picture Credit: Barbara Hulanicki