Letting Go of the People You Might Have Been

I think it was the hats that finally clued me in.
I own thirteen hats, and as I walked to the yarn shop to obtain materials for the fourteenth hat, I brooded. More than that, I mused, I prayed, I meditated. On such subjects as simplicity, the significance of hats, and the wisdom or unwisdom of buying yarn for another hat.

Boy carrying hats. New York City. - NARA - 523519 cropped
And this is what I realized: the reason I have so many hats – the reason why I have trouble getting rid of any of  these hats – is that they represent the people I could be.

Continue & Comment

In Praise of Hats

I own twelve hats. That should answer any lingering questions you may have as to which type I am. In fact (I have just realized), I have more hats than pairs of shoes. This, despite the fact that like the actress Emma Ishta, “I have a tiny head, which means most hats don’t fit very well. I do love them, though.”

[ D ] Edgar Degas - At the Milliner III had thought there was no use loving them – until I turned 21, and had a costume party to celebrate. Since there will always be those who show up without costumes, I did a round of the second-hand shops, looking for random hats to inflict on them. And one of the hats I found actually fit me. It was a small fur pillbox hat – whether it’s real fur or not, I’m not sure. There might be some rather acrylicky beasts out there…

It was a historic moment, for it was not until the Caped Gooseberry’s grandmother passed away that I once more came into the possession of a fitting hat. (Granddaughter-in-law is not usually a direct line of inheritance, but hey, if the hat fits…) She was a many-hatted lady, and I became bounteously hatted as a result.

My favourite of the whole hat inheritance is a soft mossy-coloured winter hat, with a dashing little brim. “Some hats can only be worn if you’re willing to be jaunty, to set them at an angle and to walk beneath them with a spring in your stride as if you’re only a step away from dancing,” Neil Gaiman wrote in Anansi Boys. This is that kind of hat. I love it.

A customer tries on a new hat in the millinery department of Bourne and Hollingsworth on London's Oxford Street in 1942. D6596I also came in for a fine white straw (worn when she was introduced to Prince Charles) and a funky handmade multicoloured ‘safari hat.’ I do have some other hats that fit, but they’re made of wool, which stretches, and therefore doesn’t really count. One is knitted and the other is crocheted, and they were both gifts.

But I refuse to be hampered by the possession of a “tiny wee bonce,” as the last milliner I visited so charmingly expressed it. (No, she didn’t have anything that fit me.) I still own a number of hats that don’t fit – unless I wear a bandanna underneath.

There’s a wide-brimmed black felt; a cheap and nasty sunhat (the only one of my hats I bought new); a brown pageboy cap which gives the effect of a bonnet; an actual bonnet I made from a pattern in Jane Austen’s Sewing Box; and a jester cap (with bells, naturally) that the Caped Gooseberry and I made from instructions in The Hat Book.

JaneAustenCassandraWatercolourThe most recent acquisition, however, is a writing hat – a suggestion of Kerry Greenwood’s. “I have a writing hat. It is a tricorne made from an old felt hat I had as a student. It tells me that I am writing, when I am wearing that hat. When I stop writing, I take it off… The hat also tells anyone who drops in on me to go away.” My writing hat is from a second-hand shop (naturally!) and is something I’d never seen before: a wide-brimmed fur. I don’t know what kind of animals the hat used to be; at a guess I’d say rabbit and fox. It’s got a soft dark crown and underbrim, with a big puffy brim of light brown (with white guard-hairs). The brim keeps my neck warm at the back and keeps distractions out of view to the front and sides.

Fur is a contentious subject, I know, but I don’t see putting old furs in landfills as a good solution. I wouldn’t buy a new fur unless it was possum or rabbit (both environmental pests in New Zealand) or otherwise humanely farmed. I do, after all, wear sheepskin slippers (I’ve had the same pair for about fifteen years) and what is sheepskin but a sheep-fur? I draw the line at astrakhan, though – that’s just nasty.

Persian lamb; photo credit Matthias BeckerThe reason I have chosen to wear this only as a writing hat is, simply put, cowardice. I am nervous about what reaction I might get if I wore a flagrantly fur hat in public. Admittedly, the Internet is very much public, but no one can hurl paint on me over the world wide web. I don’t know why paint-hurlers don’t seem to target those wearing leather hats. Or leather bikie gear. The only difference is that one still has the hair on, and the other doesn’t.

There are undoubtedly evils and abuses in the international fur trade, but it seems to me that the answer to abuses is not to ban the products altogether (excepting endangered species, obviously). The solution is to educate people about the origins of what they’re buying, so they can make ethical choices. We don’t shame egg-eaters, we ban the use of battery cages – and in the meantime, encourage people to buy free-range. Ditto with diamonds and the Kimberly Process (although that does seem to have its issues).

Friedrich August Kaulbach Portrait of a young lady in a fur hatSo instead of flinging my warm and elegant hat into the compost bin, I will keep using it as a head-cosy until the chill of winter has passed for another year – at which point I will need to decide which will be the summer writing hat. Suggestions?

Wardrobe Cheats: The Doily Cap

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when you rely on a simple solution, you will find at the last moment it won’t work. Last weekend, I hosted a Pride and Prejudice marathon for a few friends – the BBC miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, naturally – and I thought I’d dress up a bit.


Not being the kind of wonder-woman who can whip up a full historical outfit in a day or two (while writing a best-selling self-help book and raising a tankful of orphaned cuttlefish), I decided to wear the Empire-est clothes in my regular wardrobe, and Regencify the accessories.

Being in possession of a bonnet, my thoughts naturally turned first to that – but no sensible Regency woman would wear a bonnet indoors, in her own home. What she would wear, especially if she was a respectable married woman such as myself, is a cap. White, lacy, frilly – you get the idea.

Lodovico Giori Portrait Charlotte Luise Bennecke

Actually, even unmarried ladies of A Certain Age would wear caps – going bareheaded was a sign of being in the market for a husband. And from the Regency point of view, I am a lady of A Certain Age already, having passed the grand old age of twenty-seven. Jane Austen herself took up wearing them at about that age, “and they save me a world of torment as to hairdressing,” she wrote in a letter.

The classic cap-cheat is, of course, to simply plop a large round doily on one’s head. Nothing could be easier! Until one reaches the charity shop and finds there are no large round doilies to be seen. Clearly, there has been a lot of dressing up going on in these parts lately.

Dressed young female Brielle

Desperation drove me to purchase a large rectangular doily, rejecting the genre/gender-bending little-old-lady yarmulke look suggested by the small round doilies on offer. Like Lydia Bennet, I would have to tear it apart when I got home and see if I could make it up any better.

After one or two false starts, I found a simple, suitable solution. The moral of the story: do not be abashed by staring at your reflection with a doily over your head. You look a fool; it will pass.

I pinned the two short ends together and sewed it up into a tube which would fit over my head. Then I realized my mistake and unpicked nearly half the seam.
I then turned it right-way out and ran a ribbon (all right, a shoelace, but I’ve replaced it with a ribbon) through the doily at the end-of-seam line, pulled it tight and tied a bow.
Now I had a sort of lace beanie with an enormous frill hanging off the top – a frill nearly as large as the cap itself.
This I arranged over the cap, and voila! a lacy cap with two rows of scalloped edging, and a bit of ribbon dripping down the back.

Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen
Jane Austen is not impressed.

It’s so soft and comfortable I find I keep putting it on – as Jane Austen noted in her letter, it’s just the thing for a bad hair day.

What are your secrets for wardrobe short-cuts? Please share!
And remember: dressing up is not just for fancy dress parties, Hallowe’en, or cosplaying at ComicCon. Dressing up is for eccentrics.