Hats off to HOAD student’s new museum exhibition

History of Art and Design PhD student Jo Lance has drawn on her PhD research to curate an exhibition of vintage hats at Worthing Museum – plus a hat making workshop.

The free exhibition – entitled Hats Off To Hats! and running to 13 November – is the culmination of a placement at Worthing Museum funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of Lance’s research into home-made craft practice, with a focus on millinery.

Lance has helped curate a colourful and wide-ranging exhibition featuring dozens of hats from the museum’s internationally-renowned fashion collection, including 70 wonders of headwear recently shown at a major international hat exhibition at the Spielzeug Welten Museum in Basel, Switzerland. As part of the exhibition, Jo will run a hat-making workshop on 9 October where participants will get to make their own pillbox hat.

The exhibition also reveals the painstaking behind-the-scenes conservation work that can be involved in preserving vintage hats. In an effort that would impress fans of the BBC’s The Repair Shop, experts at the Zenzie Tinker conservation studio in Brighton put in over 620 hours of work on just 21 of the 70 hats loaned to the Basel exhibition.

Hats are often particularly vulnerable items in museum collections; they are made from delicate materials such as fine straw, with fragile trims and feathers, they are apt to crush easily or attract moths. They are composite structures involving many different materials, for example hats and bonnets in fabric or straw often contain metal wire frames or brim supports. They might be difficult to clean and retain the traces of wear.

Unlike many textiles or garments which may be carefully folded, their shapes must be maintained while in storage. The Worthing exhibition foregrounds some of the ingenious methods used by textile conservators to stabilise the natural processes of decline. Several hats and bonnets are also on show with their custom conservation storage mounts – and ribbons rolled around tissue supports – still in place.

While the collection at Worthing Museum represents over 300 years of headwear fashion dating back to the 17th century, some of the most fascinating hat stories stem from the Edwardian era of the early 1900s – when hats grabbed the headlines in the fierce Suffragette campaign to secure voting rights for women.

Hats commonly worn by Edwardian women not only provided stylish headwear but also a place to conceal potential weapons, in the shape of sharp ornamental hat pins which could be up to twelve inches long…. As the women’s suffrage campaign became increasingly disruptive, newspapers and politicians fretted over the wisdom of allowing women wearing hat pins into places such as the public gallery in the House of Commons.

Controversies over hat pins reflected social anxieties over the changing roles of women, their visibility, availability and their independence. The idea of women using their hat pins as an instrument of self-defence provided subject matter for cartoons, fiction and even a music hall ballad entitled Never Go Walking Out Without Your Hat Pin.

Read Jo Lance’s blog for The Costume Society about her passion for hats,

Jo’s work also reflects the University of Brighton’s leading role as a pioneer in dress history research, encapsulated by the work of its renowned Centre for Design History, including research by leading lights in the field such as Professor Lou Taylor and Professor Cheryl Buckley. The University also holds a notable specialist teaching collection around the topic of dress history, including hats.

Jo Lance on Instagram: @jojolance01

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