10 July 2011

Writing descriptions for hats, and creating a small fantasty world at the same time.

I am starting to do the actual cataloging of the hats now.  This means writing the physical descriptions, measuring them, noting condition issues, how they were acquired and anything I might know about previous owners.  The last one is very easy. 

I know almost nothing about the former owners of any of hats.  This is actually very sad in many ways.  Like the good art history major that I am, I know the importance of provenance.  Provenance is the ownership chain of a given item (painting, book, car, hat).  I want to know about the owners of these hats.  I want to know where they were worn, why they were bought.  Was the purple hat a special occasion hat?  Did the owner wear it to a wedding or a christening?  Was it a church hat?  I can see the owner of the faux fur felt with the leopard spots wearing it to go shopping downtown in a sharp black two piece coat and dress, with the coat having a collar matching the hat and black gloves and a black leather handbag slung over her left arm.  Shopping and lunch—at the Miller and Rhodes Tea Room of course, with a stop at the Amethyst Room afterward, to look at more Sara Sue hats.  That sharp white fir Suzon probably made its debut at a North Carolina Symphony concert in Memorial Auditorium during the winter.  That is the only time of the year that it gets cold enough in Raleigh to wear fur.  The yellow net and flower hat was worn with a matching dress (perhaps by Raleigh’s premier dressmaker, Willie O. Kay) I am sure for Easter Sunday services at Christ Church or Church of the Good Shepard, both in downtown.  The black felt whimsy with the netting (which is datable to the late 1940s from the label style) was, I am sure, the talk of a cocktail party, worn with a black sheath cocktail dress.  This hat, which is what we would probably now call a fascinator, was included in an exhibit at the Gallery of Art and Design at North Carolina State University about the history of the little black dress.  I give my hats their histories in my mind since I know nothing about their previous owners. I am throwing caution to the wind as I recreate the world of my hats.

Archival descriptions are so clinical.  Type of material, dimensions, construction, labels, condition.  It sounds more like one is writing in a medical chart rather than describing an article of clothing.  Still, archival descriptions are important, because you need to know how to properly care for, store, and display the item being described.  If you store it correctly, it will be around for a long time for more people to enjoy.  That is why it breaks my heart to think of the number of hats and other items of clothing that have wound up in the dustbin.  I have to confess to looking at obituaries in the paper and thinking, “wow, I bet she owned a whole lot of nice clothes and hats.”  I know, it is wrong of me to do that.  I just cannot help it.

I did the same thing, creating fantasy worlds for vintage clothes, when we were closing Raleigh Creative Costumes.  We were selling the vintage clothes, which had come from a variety of sources over the years.  RCC had sort of become Raleigh’s attic for the clothes of the recently deceased.  Which is probably how some of my hats wound up at various vintage stores.  I think the phone conversation went like this “Aunt So and So died.  Quick bring her clothes to Doug at Raleigh Creative.  I am sure she could use them for shows.”  Some of the stuff that was in the back needed to go to dustbin, alas, because while I am sure it was fantastic when it was new, now it was beyond repair.  Years of being worn, then being in a clothes closet or bureau, and then in storage, is not always good for garments, hats or shoes.  After researching the clothes with labels, figuring out prices, and taking measurements the clothes went out into the sales area.  As I was looking at them I would talk to them, you know, converse, ask them questions like “so, did you like the play you saw when you were first worn?”  “You gave Irving a bond for his Bar Mitzvah like a good Gramma, right?”  I created histories for the dresses.  I think my favorite was the hostess gown, a filmy blue polyester number from the 1960’s.  The owner was a hostess at an Italian restaurant, owned by her brother-in-law.  They gave her the job after her husband left her for his secretary—she needed the work and they needed the help.  I even saw her hairstyle in mind.  Tall, with wisps framing her face and light blue eye shadow.  I am the Clothes Whisperer.  It is indeed an honor.

The thankless task of description writing continues.  So do the fantasies!

08 July 2011

Taking pictures of hats--and some lessons learned.

Who knew what a production it would be to take photographs of hats.  Patrick and I have started the process of taking photographs of my Sara Sue’s, Suzon’s and Tess Cantine hats.  The main question is “why do I want to take the photographs?”  Do I want an archival record?  Yes, I do.  I want a record of the hats, the labels, details of the construction, the grosgrain ribbon, the hat pins, the jewelry and other decorative pieces—in short, I want the whole hat recorded for archival reasons.  This book is two-fold in its reasoning, I want a good photographic record of the hats to preserve them, and I also want photographs of the hats being worn by women who have a head for hats.

Initially I had covered a Styrofoam head with fabric.  I could not find my metal small-headed pins, so I used the big yellow headed quilting pins I use for sewing costumes.  After looking at one or two of the hats with cream-colored fabric, Patrick and I thought that the photographs looked not so nice, rather amateurish to be totally frank.  The problem was that the head I brought had been damaged.  Someone had carved something in the cheek.  It was nothing vile, but it was clear that the cheek was scared.  My main worry was that the scarring would read as shadows in the photos.  We tried black fabric, but that did not work with the grey or black hats.  Patrick and I talked about our goals for this part of the project, what did I want from these photos, and the like.  Clearly the fabric was not working.  Neither the cream nor the black fabric looked good in the sample photographs.  In some of the photographs the cream read against the grey and the black made the brim of the darker hats disappear altogether.  And then there were the large yellow pins sticking out of the fabric like something created by Dr Frankenstein’s wife in a sewing class.  Clearly we were at an impasse.  Of course, neither of us thought to just try and see if the scaring on the head would show up in a photograph or not.  I am not sure who had the bright idea of trying to take a picture without the fabric to see if this was going to be an issue or not.  Of course in the “good” tiff photographs the scaring does show up.  I hate to think that we have taken all of these photos in vain, but it has been a learning experience.

Lessons learned: 

1.  Make sure you have all of your materials first before you cut fabric and try to cover the head.
2.  Pick a head that has been marred in any way.  This includes carving, drawing, and make up.
3.  Make sure you pack a kit bag with scissors, a small tape measure, and writing equipment with you to the photographers.
4.  Wear comfortable shoes, or shoes that slide off with ease, because you are going to be on your feet the entire time.  That head does not move itself from one view to another or change hats on its own.   If it does, you have an entirely different problem, and I am afraid I cannot help with that.