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Mad Hatters

From Erin O'Connor to the Prime Minister's Missus, Stephen Jones' Opening Draws a Crowd

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Erin O'Connor and Stephen Jones   
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There is still something so idiosyncratically eccentric about the British that, given social permission to outdo one another in a creative dressing-up challenge, they'll throw themselves into it without the slightest inhibition. Thus the private view for the magically transporting exhibition of millinery Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones at the Victoria and Albert Museum will go down in the annals of fashion as an event at which everyone present—from original punks and eighties clubgoers to artists, designers, aristocrats, and the prime minister's wife—all sported headgear (haute couture to homemade) and laughed and talked about it to total strangers. Exhibit curator Stephen Jones cleverly orchestrated this abandonment of the usual rules of social engagement by printing the instruction "Decorate your head" on the invitation. At the center of a seething horde of congratulators, the milliner, in a sparkly beret, talked about his eighteen months in the museum's archives.

"It was a huge learning curve," said Jones. "After looking at 7,000 hats, I realized that everything we think about the way they look is misunderstood. Hat fashion doesn't move forward endlessly, step-by-step. What you choose to wear has to do with the type of person you are: romantic, dynamic, rebellious, classic, establishment—whatever. And that echoes down the ages." The sheer breadth of possibility was not only evident in the exhibition—which includes such wonders as Queen Victoria's bonnet and Prince Albert's top hat, Darth Vader's mask, and Cecil Beaton's Eliza Doolittle hat from My Fair Lady—but also amply demonstrated by the ingenuity of the partygoers. There were cardboard galleons, antlers, lobsters, insects, a loaf of Poilâne bread, an eagle, turbans, top hats, tricornes, tiaras, trilbies, knotted handkerchiefs, and paper hats made of the Financial Times, not to mention a joke-shop knife through the head sported by the jeweler Judy Blame. Looking at the creative do-it-yourself enthusiasm around him, Jones smiled seraphically. "Who knows?" he mused. "Maybe this moment will be a catalyst."

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