Identity accessories

“Pardon in Brittany” by Gaston La Touche, painted in 1896 and on view at the AIC. “Pardon in Brittany” by Gaston La Touche, painted in 1896 and on view at the AIC.

Keeping your head warm is just a bonus

By Jane A. Black

“Pardon in Brittany” by Gaston La Touche, painted in 1896 and on view at the AIC.

“Pardon in Brittany” by Gaston La Touche, painted in 1896 and on view at the AIC.

Pilgrim, Santa, Robin Hood, witch, cowboy, pirate, cop. Can you picture them in your head? On your head? Their hats, I mean. Without the topper, the costume is simply incomplete; the distinctive character is obscured. Without the pointy black hat, how do you know it’s a witch and not just someone in a bad black dress and a silly cape?

I don’t know what got me thinking on hats. Usually this doesn’t crop up until winter. Most of my friends have been subjected to “Jane’s New Year’s Eve Torture” – my annual hat-making party. For years now, this has been my idea of big fun – creating a chapeau to sport during a midnight toast to the outgoing and incoming years.

We make them out of scraps and junk, maps and tools, gloves and sponges, leftover toys and all that glitzy glittery craft store stuff you can find in the bargain bins … I’ve got boxes full. Construction matters. Multiple tiers are always appreciated. Highly prized are those creative souls who will take a pile of something that has languished in the box for a few years and use it all up.

It began when my niece was three or four, and we spent a cold December 31 coloring paper hats topped with wiggling fingers, an ode to one of my favorite movies, The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr. T. It is the only feature film ever written by Dr. Seuss, who also designed the spectacular sets and costumes. With hats.

Once hat fever hits me, they simply seem to crop up everywhere. My daughter decided that a weekend in Chicago was the perfect time to don a wide-brimmed, shallow-crowned vintage number – very Audrey Hepburn. She had already decided that hats would be the decorative theme for her language arts folder, and spent the weekend creating a fabulous illustration of fedoras, top hats, baseball caps and more.

During our perusal of the Art Institute of Chicago, hats appeared most everywhere. Candle-lit white caps fill La Touche’s “Pardon in Brittany;” the hats in Degas’ millinery shop jump out of the picture plane; and indigenous American war bonnets contrast with Mongolian skullcaps replete with beads and pendants. Check my Twitter feed (@lookingabout) for more images.

As we wandered the museum, I longed for the company of my Yellow Springs friend, Debbie Henderson, who has made quite a study of men’s hats and surely would have shared historical fact, cultural reference and a true understanding of hat craft. A costume designer for the Wittenberg University Department of Theatre and Dance, she got hooked on hats as a thesis topic, and has since created museum exhibits and written four books on the subject. She would have known right off if we were looking at homburgs or fedoras. Speaking of fedoras, it was nice to see Hopper’s “Nighthawks” in person again – though I noticed that he seemed to have missed painting an ashtray on the counter. Also, incidentally, it kind of looks like the guy with his back to you is saying his “Blackberry prayers.”  This led to a hunt for things in historical artworks that we interpret in contemporary ways. Fun.

On a related note, I love a guy who makes wigs (especially ones that look like enormous hats) and owns the title “Smack Mellon Hot Pick.” That would be recent visitor Marin Abell, who has been knocking around the residency circuit since getting his MFA from Ohio University. He was in town this summer for another round of the eight-week Blue Sky Project, which invites artists and Dayton-area teens to create new works of contemporary art.

Marin took over a storefront facing Courthouse Square and created “The Rat’s Nest,” an exuberant, messy installation that must have been a blast for the kids to work on. It was a great contrast to the other piece that I found the most intriguing – the controlled, cerebral repetitions of Suzannah Mira and crew, shown in a storefront on Main Street.

So, whether your tastes run to simple wool caps or tinfoil triangles to keep the aliens from reading your thoughts, I suggest you bring a little extra style to your next stroll, and put on a hat to go looking about.

Jane A. Black is a fiber artist and the executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. Visit the gallery at 118 N. Jefferson St. or visit their website at Follow her on Twitter @lookingabout. She can be reached at

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