What’s new?

Reluctant as I am to admit to materialism, upon reflection I suppose it isn’t something for which I ought to feel the least indignity.  Retail after all is at the heart of global prosperity beginning for example on our own shores in Canada with the inestimable fur trade. Indeed my own paternal grandfather was among other things a fur trader, specifically silver fox.

The North American fur trade began as early as the 1500s between Europeans and First Nations and was a central part of the early history of contact between Europeans and the native peoples of what is now the United States and Canada. In 1578 there were 350 European fishing vessels at Newfoundland. Sailors began to trade metal implements (particularly knives) for the natives’ well-worn pelts. The first pelts in demand were beaver and sea otter, as well as occasionally deer, bear, ermine and skunk.

Fur robes were blankets of sewn-together, native-tanned, beaver pelts. The pelts were called castor gras in French and “coat beaver” in English, and were soon recognized by the newly developed felt-hat making industry as particularly useful for felting. Some historians, seeking to explain the term castor gras, have assumed that coat beaver was rich in human oils from having been worn so long (much of the top-hair was worn away through usage, exposing the valuable under-wool), and that this is what made it attractive to the hatters. This seems unlikely, since grease interferes with the felting of wool, rather than enhancing it. By the 1580s, beaver “wool” was the major starting material of the French felt-hatters. Hat makers began to use it in England soon after, particularly after Huguenot refugees brought their skills and tastes with them from France.

After a lifetime devoted to the unqualified perquisites of trade, it has come as a surprise to me to have developed of late an interest in a subject which until now has predominantly escaped my attention; namely, hats. Or, if you prefer a more elevated characterization, millinery. What it is that has provoked this particular inquisitiveness is not entirely unprecedented although it is singular.

Hat-making or millinery is the design, manufacture and sale of hats and other headwear. A person engaged in this trade is called a milliner or hatter. Historically, milliners made and sold a range of accessories for clothing and hairstyles. In France, milliners are known as marchand(e)s de modes (fashion merchants) rather than being specifically associated with hat-making. In Britain, however, milliners were known to specialise in hats by the beginning of the Victorian period.

The term “milliner” or “Milener” originally meant someone from Milan, in northern Italy, in the early 16th century. It referred to Milanese merchants who sold fancy bonnets, gloves, jewellery and cutlery. In the 16th to 18th centuries, the meaning of “milliner” gradually changed in meaning from “a foreign merchant” to “a dealer in small articles relating to dress”. Although the term originally applied to men, from 1713 “milliner” gradually came to mean a woman who makes and sells bonnets and other accessories for women.

As part of the shifting sands of our social régime, we lately began an investigation of alternatives to what had been for the past decade a routine sojourn to Florida for the winter months. The first switch was from Florida back to Hilton Head Island where it all began almost fifteen years ago. We decided that within reason we could bear the deprivation of the Florida Keys; and, that at the same time – perhaps as a mere product of aging – endure a limitation of our absence from Canada. But not without appropriate accommodation; namely, an adventure of some novelty.  The innovation upon which we have settled is a cruise.  It is this which has sparked my current absorption in hats. And, as well you might surmise in this instance, marine hats.

Henri Henri Montréal, Québec

It somewhat flabbergasts me to confess this burgeoning preoccupation. The hats I already have in my possession relate predominantly to usage confined to Canadian winter; namely, felt fedora, beaver hat, toques, etc. And while I have had some experimentation with the celebrated Tilley and Panama hats, it wasn’t until now that I have turned my attention to the less practical ornaments. To avoid being coy I shall disclose that the specific hat of which I speak is the so-called Greek fisherman’s hat or Athens Cap (or those without the embroidery detail, the Fiddler or Dutch Boy Caps). The Greek Fishermen’s hat invokes images of the old European fishing port. The wool Fishermen’s cap is most recognized; but they come in cotton, denim, corduroy and leather as well.

During the early twentieth century, a hat was a staple of men’s fashion and would be worn in almost all public places. However, as a social custom and common courtesy, men would remove their hats when at home or when engaged in conversation with women. In addition, the ability to own a hat was culturally considered a sign of wealth due to fashion being recognized as a status symbol. Only those with few economic resources would venture out without a hat. The introduction of a new line of felt hats made from nutria, an animal similar to the beaver, helped establish the fedora as a durable product. Prices, in the first decade of the twentieth century, for a nutria fedora ranged from ninety-eight cents to two dollars and twenty-five cents. Starting in the 1920s, fedoras began to rise in popularity after the Prince of Wales adopted the felt hat as his favored headwear. As a result, “the soft felt hat replaced the stiff hat as the best seller in the decade”. The fedora soon took its place as a choice hat and joined other popular styles that included the derby and the homburg.

I have avoided allowing myself to be consumed by the allure of the more exotic captain’s cap which is meant to signal commander of the ship but which on the wrong head at the wrong moment risks being perilously close to costume accessory. What it is about aging and hats I have no conception other than to say it’s true. There are no doubt among us those of hardened disposition who ascribe to beards and hats the evocation of secrecy or disguise. I suspect however my personal ambition is more the product of sartorial experimentation than anything else. It is besides for me at least among the last of life’s horizons.

Bell & Ross haute-horlogerie

And speaking of horizons and accessories, allow me to add parenthetically that, while composing this monologue I stumbled upon Bell & Ross watches (don’t ask how, if indeed I can recall) which I shamefully confess are even more unfamiliar to me than hats.  Nonetheless acknowledging as I do the male interest in ornaments of varied description, I felt I ought to share this latest intelligence if for no other reason than to dilute the alledged Shakespearean female dominance of vanity.

Shakespeare never wrote the line “Vanity, thy name is woman.” Hamlet’s line reads, “Frailty, thy name is woman,” in relation to his mother’s hasty marriage to Claudius after the King’s death. But upon looking at Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, it is impossible not to conjure up Shakespeare’s misquoted line. Lady Lilith sensuously reclines in a luxuriant, though decidedly ambiguous, environment. Rossetti’s placement of a mirror behind Lilith, reflecting a lush tree in the exterior, complicates the scene both visually and symbolically as the viewer struggles to discern between interiority and exteriority. Yet the focus of the painting is most certainly Lady Lilith herself. She is the consummate image of sensuality and beauty. With heavy-lidded eyes she gazes at herself in the mirror, completely absorbed in her own image. Lady Lilith has eyes only for herself. Surrounded by a myriad of flowers, she sits and combs her luxurious copper hair. There is nothing of the confining Victorian concept of feminine constraints; her hair is unbound and she does not wear a corset. Instead, she wears what looks to be a nightgown that has slipped off her shoulders, revealing her long neck. Rossetti paints her skin and gown in the same tones, and thus, in a rather Deleuzian way, her alabaster flesh seems to permeate her dress. Yet despite her overtly feminine sensuous lips and flowing hair, there is something rather masculine in Lady Lilith. The line of her jaw, her powerful neck, and heavy shoulders are those of a man, not a frail Victorian woman. Thus I see Rossetti’s consummate image of beauty as decidedly androgynous.