South Park Magazine

Tip of the hat

The hat, fashion's crowning glory, is embodied with this couture creation from the Mint Museum of Art on model Megan Poplin.
The hat, fashion's crowning glory, is embodied with this couture creation from the Mint Museum of Art on model Megan Poplin. Todd Sumlin,

No accessory tells the story of society the way the hat does.

Worn by both men and women, young and old, business tycoons and fieldworkers, the head covering can be protective, decorative, religious. Most of all, though, it’s enduring.

The first known depiction of a hat dates back thousands of years old to an ancient Thebes tomb painting of a man in a conical “coolie” hat made of straw, and in the 21st century, hats of all constructions – including straw – are enjoying a cultural resurgence.

Take Prince William of Wales’ bride, Kate Middleton. The paparazzi can’t get enough of her inspired confections: the lustrous fedora, the chocolate brown velvet beret trimmed in pheasant feathers, even the Stetson-style hat (a la Indiana Jones).

Events like the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase in Mineral Springs (held April 30 this year) and the June “Women Who Lead” luncheon celebrate elaborate hats, and a number of designers, including Charlotte’s own Lore Emelio, have incorporated the art of millinery in their lines this year. And at a time when purse-strings are tight, the hat might be the perfect accessory.

‘A status symbol’

While mankind has likely always worn head coverings at one time or another, the ancient Greeks were the first to create a hat with a brim. It was a protective measure from the elements. Slaves, on the other hand, weren’t allowed to wear head coverings as long as they were in someone else’s service, so once they were freed, they donned brimless felt caps, called “liberty caps,” their emblem of independence, says the Mint Museum’s Director of Fine Arts Charles Mo, who oversees the historic costume and fashionable dress collection.

Women often wore head-coverings, such as veils and kerchiefs, but structured hats for females didn’t emerge until around the 16th century, when the art of millinery (making women’s hats) was born. The term “milliner” comes from Milan, Italy, a place renowned for its quality hat-making.

“We know there were great hats in the 18th and 19th centuries (because) a woman wouldn’t go out without thinking of covering her head with a bonnet,” says Mo.

Under the milliner’s hands, the bonnets and hat styles slowly transitioned. The brims grew wider, and adornments, such as ribbons, flowers, feathers and gauze became par for the course.

But the 20th century brought change to the burgeoning industry. During World War I, it became unpatriotic to “waste” fabric on ornate designs, so hats trended back to simple.

The late 1940s and 50s saw the emergence of the pillbox hat design with a flat crown and straight, upright sides.

“By the 60s, the art of the hairdresser really took off,” said Mo. “Women had these huge bouffant hairdos, where it was teased and sprayed. I remember it would be this solid mass.”First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s signature look – bouffant hair with a pillbox hat – helped cement her legacy as a fashion icon. “Hats speak to fashion,” Mo says. “Fashion often equates to being a status symbol.”

Enjoying a resurgence

Hats dipped in mainstream popularity in the 70s but saw resurgence in the 80s, when the late Princess Diana of Wales stepped on the scene. And now her (soon-to-be) daughter-in-law is doing the same.

Local designer Lore Emelio says Kate Middleton is a major reason hats’ mainstream popularity is growing again. “I’m thrilled. I think it’s exciting to see a public figure that is of the younger set setting a fun and dignified example,” Emelio says. “(Her style) is not over the top but it’s still fun. It’s attractive, lady-like, really great balance.“I feel like she’s most known for hats, which makes the aspect of her wearing hats even more dynamic.”

Emelio, a UNC Chapel Hill graduate who went to design school Parsons and worked a labels including Ralph Lauren, returned to Charlotte for a change of pace. She made her first dress when she was 6, and her first hat around the same time. Her “Avante Garden” fashion show at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in March debuted her newest looks, and a new collection of straw hats stole the show. Mini sunhats are her studio’s biggest push for the season.

And according to Emelio, they’re the perfect accessory for the recessionista.

“With the recessionyou’re not going to buy or invest as much in a whole new look or those expensive pieces, but you can have the same impact,” Emelio says. “As opposed to it being an additional expense, it’s an exchange expense.”

Emelio maintains that women of really discerning taste and style have always worn hats. One of the most influential and iconic designers of all time, Coco Chanel, started as a hat maker in France. “But for the general public, hats are recirculating,” she says. “I think it’s wonderful.”

The gift of a Sunday morning

One need only step into an African American church community to see how the tradition of hats is still very much alive. North Carolinians Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry published a book in 2000 called “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats.” The book pairs photographs of dozens of African American women in their best hats with stories from their childhoods.

In the foreword, author and poet Maya Angelou (author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”) recounts the Sunday morning experience for an African American woman after a grueling workweek. The woman picks out her outfit on Saturday night, but always saves the hat-picking for the following morning, Angelou writes. Early Sunday, the woman pulls out the fancy hatboxes from the closet to try on each, testing them with her most recent hairdo.

Then after a bath, dousing in lotion, makeup and a spritz of perfume, “she puts on THE HAT, and it is The Hat,” Angelou writes. “She looks at her reflection from every possible angle. And then, she leaves home and joins the company of her mothers and aunties and sisters and nieces and daughters at church whose actions had been identical to hers that morning. They too had waited longingly for the gift of a Sunday morning. Now they stroll up and down the aisles of the church, stars of splendor, beauty beyond measurement. Black ladies in hats.”

The eighth annual Maya Angelou Women Who Lead Luncheon this June, which raises money for scholarships through the United Negro College Fund for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities, wouldn’t be complete without its Hat-i-tude! competition. Women attending the luncheon with Angelou will be wearing their Sunday best -- from toe to head. UNCF’s Regional Development Director Marilyn Richards says the elaborate and exquisite hats come in a rainbow of colors and are made from fabrics like wool, felt and silk and are adorned by feathers, beads and tulle. Hat-i-tude! contest categories include: Sassy, Classic, Dressy, Original, Whimsical and Aspiring Leader for ages 4 to 12.

“As a culture and as women, we all think and feelthat if we’re fully dressed, we should all don our heads with a crown,” says Richards.

From protection to definition

The head is the most integral part of the body. It’s where our eyes go first, the upper extremity, the place where four of our five senses reside. So it’s no wonder that the fashion industry found a way to adorn it, to let the head and its finery start the conversation. And it’s no surprise that the hat is so enduring.

Emelio says hats are a reflection of our society’s development. Each particular style tells a story, but the wider scope of the hat shows that we’re no longer dependent on an article of clothing’s functionality – that we can use them to form our identity. “Hats went from protection to definition, and we’re still in that,” said Emelio. “They have helped us further define ourselves and express ourselves.” From a protective shield to a fashion statement to a sign of religious reverence, the head-toppers are, most of all, a lesson in both tradition and reinvention. We’ll tip our hats to that.

Want to go?

Maya Angelou Women Who Lead Luncheon When: Saturday, June 25. Silent auction and hat competition at 10 a.m., luncheon starts at noon.Where: The Westin Charlotte, 601 South College St.Cost: Tickets are $150 person when purchased by May 27, and $175 after May 27. Advance tickets only. Details: 704-377-8625;

Mint Museum’s “Chanel: Designs for the Modern Woman” exhibitWhen: May 21 to Jan. 1, 2012Where: Mint Museum Randolph, 2730 Randolph Road.General admission is $10 adults, $8 seniors and colleges tudents, $5 students (ages 5-17) and free for children under 5. For more information and museum hours:; 704-337-2000.