Outlandish millinery fit for a king in Brighton’s pleasure palace

Bookmark and Share

Wendy Fraser, volunteer at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and MA History of Design and Material Culture student, shares her insider insights on an innovative new display at the Royal Pavilion.

Stephen Jones Hats, the exhibition at the Royal Pavilion that opened on 7 February 2019 and runs until 9 June 2019, celebrates over 150 hat creations designed by the milliner Stephen Jones OBE. After studying millinery at Central St Martins (and being taught dress history by University of Brighton’s Professor Lou Taylor), Jones opened his first shop in Covent Garden in 1980 and just two years later one of his hats was bought by the V&A for their collection. He has designed hats for celebrities and royalty and has collaborated with fashion houses and couturiers including Dior, Thom Browne and Giles Deacon. The hats in the exhibition have been garnered from private lenders, designers and Jones’s own archive.

Figure 1 3D printed bust of Stephen Jones wearing a specially made top hat in the Octagon Hall of the Pavilion. Photograph by Tessa Hallman, 2019. Image courtesy of Brighton Museum.

Co-curated by Stephen Jones and Martin Pel, the curator of Fashion and Textiles at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, the exhibition has been designed as a tour through the Royal Pavilion with the hats, grouped by theme, ‘peopling’ the rooms. The visitor is greeted in the Octagon Hall by two gilded busts of George IV and Stephen Jones commissioned especially for the exhibition and wearing oversized hats: a velvet bicorne hat from Galliano’s Spring/Summer 2009 show for the Prince Regent and a crimson velvet top hat upon Jones’s head (Figure 1). Jones has made headwear for George IV before: his statue in Trafalgar Square was adorned with a gold hat in the shape of one of the Pavilion’s domes and topped with a rounded minaret (the hat is displayed on the bed in the Yellow Bow Room) while the horse he sat astride sported a smaller version. Both hats were designed for  the millinery showcase Hatwalk when some of London’s most famous statues were behatted as part of the celebrations for the London Olympics in 2012.

The Pavilion provides a fitting background for Jones’s hats which are as dramatic and fantastical as the opulent interiors of the royal palace.  Jones has links to Brighton; his Spring/Summer 2012 collection Chinoiserie-on-Sea was inspired by the Pavilion and he has carried out research for his work in the costume store at Brighton Museum which is where the idea for this exhibition was first proposed. It is this collection of Brighton-themed hats, connecting to the architecture and seaside location of the city, which visitors first encounter in the entrance hall.

Figure 2 Stephen Jones’s hats on display in the Great Kitchen, Brighton Pavilion. Photograph by Tessa Hallman, 2019. Image courtesy of Brighton Museum.

In the banqueting room the table is set for 26 hats worn by some of Jones’s most famous clients including Lady Gaga, Mick Jagger, Kylie Minogue and Boy George. The two wider, most prestigious chairs at the star-studded dinner party are reserved for a top hat from the 1920s which belonged to Jones’s grandfather and a hat that he has replicated for George IV from a portrait painted in 1782, demonstrating that hats have always been ‘an important social and historical item of dress.’ [1] The great kitchen has a whimsical display of hats themed around food, the underwater world and birds (Figure 2). A seagull hat designed for the New York brand, Thom Browne, is displayed high up in the kitchen as though ready to sweep down and steal chips – a witty nod to Brighton’s beach menaces.

I have been volunteering at the museum with Martin Pel since Autumn 2017 and have been involved in the behind-the-scenes preparation for the show. It’s been a fascinating experience, and has included visiting the studio of Zenzie Tinker Textile Conservation (where individual mounts have been made for each hat to enable their display on metal stands) and helping to measuring the heights for the hat stands in their different display configurations. I assisted on a shoot where each hat was individually photographed for the guide panels, I met the artist who has gilded the 3D printed busts in her studio, and when it came to the installation of the exhibition, I helped to put hats into their locations. There are entire outfits by Giles Deacon, Thom Browne, John Galliano for Dior and Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior on display, with the hats that Jones made to accessorise them.  During the installation a team from Dior came to the Pavilion to dress the Dior mannequins but I was able to assist by dressing some of the mannequins with the Giles Deacon outfits and moving them into position with Martin (Figure 3). This was thrilling but also quite nerve-wracking!

Figure 3 Giles Deacon outfits with Stephen Jones runway headpieces. Photograph by Tessa Hallman, 2019. Image courtesy of Brighton Museum.

During his speech at the private view, Jones spoke about the exhibition and observed that ‘hats tell a story’. The hats worn by the glitterati of our times exhibited in the Royal Pavilion help to remind the visitor that the Pavilion was a pleasure palace – a venue for lively parties attended by glamorous aristocratic guests. The interaction between the hats and the architecture and furnishings of the Pavilion allows the hats to transcend their function as headwear. Depending on where they are positioned, they appear as sculptural objects of art in their own right, at times complimenting the colours and style of the sumptuous interiors, at others arresting the eye with their incongruous shapes and materials. Clair Hughes describes the wild nature of millinery in a way that surely the hedonistic George IV would approve of: ‘a hat has the license to be what it wants’, she writes, ‘it can take off in any direction in almost any material and much can happen as it leaps into the void. Hats, like the best pleasures, are risky.’ [2]

[1] Oriole Cullen, Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, (London: V&A Publishing, 2009) 11.

[2] Clair Hughes, Hats (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) 14.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *