The news from Valerie:
The folks who live in my building had a meeting not too long ago. They said it was to discuss current issues, but to me there is only one: we have been deprived of access to our roof for a decade now, and we want it back. Every year we discuss it, and every year we get evasive answers, as if we were reporters at the White House. We might hear something along the lines of "we're about to get to that", or "that's currently under discussion", or "we'll have to get back to you on that". If we persist, we'll get the equivalent of "asked and answered", or "can we please move along - there are many other issues we have to discuss." And that will be the end of it.
At meetings like these, it is difficult to ask more than one or two questions on a single subject, but silence could be interpreted as tacit consent to the status quo. What's a girl to do? In my building I'm well known for my hats, and decided to let a hat speak for me. Half an hour before the meeting, I cut up a piece of black oak tag and got out a white pencil. I made a small sign with a single word on it (see above) to put on a hat. Imagining where I would sit, I decided it was not enough to have a word only in the front where the speakers would see it. I had to put the same word on the back, where my fellow residents would see it. Since the pencil smeared easily, I used narrow white editing tape for the back side. In the amount of time left before the meeting, there was only one hat I could easily put the sign on: a small velveteen hat with an open top (Jean and I refer to it as the volcano hat).
The last time I wore it was in 2011, when I still had long hair. (Dyed in the wool readers might remember this photo. The volcano hat had the perfect opening for a pony tail.)
It was really hard to get a single hat pin to hold the sign the way I wanted, so the sign was a bit angled, but as long as it was legible it served its purpose. With the hat, I wore a black jacket and pants so nothing would distract from the message. I arrived at the meeting early enough to sit front row center, which helped my message reach everyone in our small room. My neighbors all associate me with millinery, and the hat got lots of laughs. That's fine - it got people talking, and focused on the issue, so it was an effective tool. During the meeting, I asked one or two questions on the topic, but the bulk of the questions were asked by the other residents. I don't know what will ultimately happen, but I'm convinced the reason we had a thorough discussion about the roof (possibly twenty minutes long) was that the hat encouraged a number of people to speak out and not feel they were alone in their concern.
I'd love to say I'm the first person ever to use a hat to political ends, but all of you know that's not true. For the fun of it, I've come up with several examples of political headgear.
Some of you will argue that this is not a hat, it's a hair style. Technically, you're right, but in this case it's a very fine line - a mere hair's breadth - between one and the other. This hairstyle, apparently first worn by Marie Antoinette, was called coiffure a la Belle Poule (also called pouf a la Belle Poule, which seems far more descriptive). It commemorates a 1778 naval battle in which France's ship, La Belle Poule, routed England's ship, the Arethusa, giving rise to a declaration of war several weeks later (and leading to the alignment of the French with the United States in its struggle against English colonization). A celebration of the victory was definitely in order, and this was one way women could express themselves. (For more extraordinary renditions of hair styles of the French aristocracy during the period, click here.)
Shortly thereafter, the Phrygian cap, or bonnet rouge, became a simple statement against the outrageous hair styles and headgear of the aristocracy and religious leaders, and then a symbol of the French revolution. The red cap atop the tree in the drawing above echoes the cap and spear that symbolized freedom from the tyranny of the French monarchy. (See the man at left, who has both cap and spear.) Before the French, the Swedish suffered from a similar imbalance of power. They formed political parties called The Hats (for the wealthy) and The Caps (for the commoners). (No great illustrations, but you can read about them here.)
This well known painting by David depicts Napoleon's coronation as Emperor of France in 1803. In a highly symbolic gesture, Napoleon took the crown from the hands of the Pope and placed it on his head himself, implying that the Catholic Church had no authority over the French government.
In a very canny political move, English women campaigning for suffrage wore "willfully conventional dress", some spending more than their budgets allowed, so as to campaign in public without attracting criticism and doing "harm to the cause". For more on the use of fashion as a political tool in the fight for women's suffrage, click here.
This immediately identifiable hat was used to recruit soldiers for World Wars I and II.
For two years, early in India's movement for independence from Great Britain, Gandhi wore this cap, which was widely adopted by the movement's members. Nehru is more closely associated with the hat, which he wore much of his life.
World War II had a fascinating effect on Paris hats, which were among the few articles of clothing that were not rationed. Nevertheless, material was hard to come by. Necessity became the mother of invention, but in a city centered on fashion, invention combined with expertise to make ingenious and beautiful hats out of next to nothing.
These French wartime turbans, from the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, demonstrate what French women were able to do with the materials available to them. As April Calahan points out in her wonderful podcast, it was difficult to get enough ration cards to buy shoes or dress material, but a woman could stand out with a hat. Resourceful women took apart damaged clothes and recycled the materials. These turbans might have been made from fragments. Many of the outlandish designs of the period, says Calahan, were structured on a cardboard base. The height, shape and color of the hats distracted the eye from looking at the rest of the outfit. (Doesn't this make you want to find out if Carmen Miranda's amazing turbans had their origins in the deprivations talented French women suffered during the war?)
Calahan's podcast also mentions this semi-subversive hat. Before the German occupation, Parisians enjoyed listening to Le Poste Parisien, a progressive radio station. During the occupation, the Germans took Le Poste Parisien off the air, and replaced it with programs more favorable to them. This hat imitates a radio dial of the time, and the needle in the center points to Le Poste Parisien.
While French women wore hats demonstrating their resistance to the government, in the United States, hats that aligned with the government became very popular. With its streamlined sides, center crease and forward leaning peak at the front, this hat is based on the garrison cap worn by the U.S. military, but has enough differences, including the feathers, tapered back and rounded sides, to make it a feminine and patriotic fashion statement.
This is probably the way most of us imagine political hats - fake straw boaters supporting a political candidate. That's John Kennedy reaching out near the center, and his face atop all the white hats. For a look at some modern day amusing and creative variations on the theme, click here.
Most people would probably have difficulty recognizing Che Guevara, or associating him with social revolution, without his iconic beret.
New York City's Guardian Angels, best known during the 1970s, when the City's subways suffered from high crime rates, were recognizable by their red berets.
Congresswoman Bella Abzug is said to have started wearing hats to prevent male colleagues from electing her to serve refreshments at work.
Have you noticed that all the women of the House of Windsor wear hats? Have you noticed that those who marry into the House of Windsor never wore hats until they were engaged to Windsor men? Have you noticed that Windsor men almost never wear hats, except for formal occasions? There's a political message in there somewhere... Not that we mind, being hat lovers and all. And some of the Windsor ladies really do it quite well. But it does seem a little lopsided, gender-wise.
Wear a hat. Speak your mind.