To curate an exhibition of headwear is to capture moments in millinery history. The United Kingdom, with its formal dress occasions and historical class system, has a long and intriguing relationship with hats and headwear. From the top hat to the boater, and the cocktail-hat to the pillbox, these iconic shapes are all explored in Hats off to Racing at 34 restaurant, Mayfair, London which runs until July 20th 2014.
The exhibition coincides with one of the most exclusive and historic race meetings, Royal Ascot. Hugely popular, the event attracts 300,000 visitors across the 5-day event but is not without its sartorial rules and formal dress code for the Royal enclosure. For men, it is full mourning suits (with waistcoat and tie) in black or grey with black shoes and, of course, a top hat. According to London hatters, Lock & Co, founded in 1676, black is the most popular choice. Headwear is obligatory for the ladies as well and strict rules apply to their choices too. If a full hat is not worn, the base must be at least 4 inches in diameter and fascinators are no longer permitted.
The focus in 'Hats off to Racing' is to use Ascot as the jumping point from which to highlight iconic designs and showcase both the craft and innovation of contemporary milliners, sculptors and hatters. In this exhibition, the traditional top hat has been reinvented by David Shilling, who himself is a regular attendee of Ascot. While his sequin, cherry dripping topper would definitely not be allowed into the Royal Enclosure, it perfectly embodies his whacky aesthetic which marked him out as one of Britain's most eccentric and unrestrained designers in recent history. Shilling is untrained and started making hats for his mother Gertrude's annual appearances at Ascot. She loved the theatricality of fashion and attended Ascot a staggering 34 times becoming known as the ascot mascot, both for this, and her increasingly boundary-pushing millinery, all designed by Shilling. More recently, his work has been collected by some of the world's foremost museums and has been photographed by the greats from Cecil Beaton to Mario Testino.
Another hat closely associated with British society is the boater, historically worn by a wide range of social stratas, from shipmen in the Royal Navy to schoolchildren, and is now mostly see at Henley Royal Regatta. Represented here by Sanguine, this selection is from Moody and Farrell's Spring Summer 2014 collection. Hand-stitched and hand-woven from wheat straw, it is resplendent with a hand-plaited brass hatpin, adorning the hat like an Elizabethan broach. In order to learn the intricate plaiting techniques, Eloise Moody underwent grueling training from a straw craftswoman in her 80s to create this ornate and exquisite hat.
1920s society was all about the cloche hat and close fitting cocktail pieces. The dainty Delille from milliner Aurora Ozma is a signature piece from the brand's aesthetic. Comprising white patent lambskin leather and Swarovski crystal detail, this handcrafted and glazed berry detailing design perfectly embodies the glamorous side of the decade. While the 1950s were synonymous with covering the head, by the 1960s the appeal of hats was beginning to wane slightly due to the rise of geometric haircuts and celebrity hairstylists, as well as a relaxing of social norms. This decade still managed to produce some of the most dynamic and enduring designs in millinery however, one of which is the pillbox hat. Most famously worn by Jackie Kennedy Onassis, this shape has been modernised for this exhibition by London-based milliner Noel Stewart, who creates architectural headwear for clients and the catwalk. His 'ferocity' veil features regularly in his collections, in different forms and fabrications. At 34, the leopard print cocktail version with its technical drape updates this classic shape and is perfect for a stylish day at the races.
While millinery is daring, elegant and fun, this exhibition also illustrates that contemporary headwear can be more than just stylish, as evidenced in its technically accomplished milliners and the innovative, boundary-pushing design-led pieces on display.
'Hats off to the Racing Season' runs at 34 restaurant, Mayfair, until 22nd July 2014. The Majesty's Plate cocktail has been created in honour of the first race held annually at Ascot on 11th August 1711 and a beautiful hat bomb desert which pays homage to jockeys' silks and the riding hat will be available for the duration of the exhibition.