The Elegance of Hats

IMG_2199Each day, a little elegance comes directly to my inbox. It’s called The Object of the Day, and it’s a photograph and brief description of a piece of art in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum. On any given day, I learn about a priceless painting, sculpture, or artifact. This Sunday, the Object of the Day was this amazing High Lama’s Summer Hat.

Coincidentally, at church that very morning I noticed not a single person was wearing a hat, and I found myself wishing we all were. Perhaps I was thinking about hats because I’ve been spending hot summer afternoons indoors watching period dramas where characters’ costumes always include a variety of beautiful hats.

For the past twenty years or so, I nearly always wear a hat outside to protect my face from the sun. This is to atone for the previous forty years of tanning until I was, as my grandmother would say, as brown as a berry. The hats I wear are generally baseball caps or straw sun hats that are not nearly as attractive as I would secretly like to wear.

Currently on display at our local museum, Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, is a fanciful display of hats by Dianne Isbell, an award-winning designer and milliner. Isbell creates one-of-a-kind hats for people all over the country. Her custom-made hats perch on ladies’ heads at the Kentucky Derby, weddings, churches, theme parties, and other special occasions. Her hats have even been worn by Hollywood leading ladies, including Lady Gaga. (Learn more at

I’m glad such beautiful hats are on display in museums and still created by milliners like Isbell, but I do wish they were back in everyday fashion. I realize I would look fairly ridiculous wearing the High Lama’s Summer Hat to water the roses, play golf, or walk around the neighborhood. So for now, I’ll don my purely functional baseball cap and dream of a more elegant time and place where hats are de rigueur. §

“Next week I shall begin operation on my hat
on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.” 

~ Jane Austen

Featured Art ~ High Lama’s Summer Hat, China, late 19th to early 20th century
This hat has a rounded crown and a wide flat brim. The interior is made of woven bamboo covered with bright yellow silk satin damask featuring roundels with five-clawed dragons. The top ends in a red silk knot above a border with stylized fungus forms. The hat’s brim is edged with a key-fret brocade and its underside is covered with red silk damask. Hats like this were made in China for use by visiting high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist monks known as lamas. The use of bright yellow silk and five-clawed dragons are strong indications that such hats were commissioned by the imperial court at Beijing, a city with a number of important Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries. It was presented as a gift to the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1986 from Mr. and Mrs. F. Russell Fette in memory of Helen Campbell Fette.

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