The rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, are different from you and me. And, without them, it seems we would all be clueless as to what to wear next. These days, designers are pointing to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, for a resurgence of interest in women’s hats and fascinators.
It may be time to finally dust off that leopard-skin pillbox hat.
Recently the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem devoted an entire exhibit to hats. And three local milliners are turning out beguiling new offerings for spring.
Former punk rock singer Natasha Manolagas found her way to designing hats while getting a degree in fashion back in the ’80s. Now in her 40s, Manolagas still radiates punk-rock charm with long black hair, dark eyeliner, and a silver nose ring. Wearing a rose-adorned silver hat of her own design, she’s a cross between Joan Jett and a Victorian aristocrat.
Manolagas, of Swampscott, says she prefers to keep the hat-making process spontaneous and not follow patterns too precisely. In hat-making as in life, Manolagas believes, one should embrace unpredictable turns that come with the creative process.
“In rock’n’ roll I learned I could accomplish anything just being myself, not having to be a perfect person,” she says. As a result, Manolagas jokes that her hats — made under the label Natasha Star Designs — require a bit of squinting from the viewer to appear perfect.
Although she plays down her technical skills, Manolagas’s talent and appeal are evident: Her creations — available in myriad styles from sporty caps to floppy flower-adorned numbers — sell well at the Peabody Essex Museum shop.
Hat maker Lisa Pedemonti-DiPietro of Gloucester sports the heart-shaped face, red Cupid’s-bow lips, and long lashes of a silent film star. On her head sits a floral pillbox hat topped with a tiny bird’s nest complete with speckled egg. An elementary school art teacher at Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead, Pedemonti-DiPietro began making hats two years ago after taking a course at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. The 40-something milliner quips that her one-of-a-kind hats, designed under the label Poe’s Factory, are designed for “immature women.”
“They have a childlike quality to them, like me,” she says.
The artist’s playful personality is evident in her hats. Red-and-white checked fabric, burlap bows, and a red cherry pin evoke summer picnics, while one pillbox number adorned with oyster shell and pearl conjures up salty breezes and ocean waves.
Unlike his fellow hat-makers, Bill Graham, proprietor of Beautiful Things in Salem, is self-taught. The white-haired man with sparkling blue eyes says he was inspired after a trip to England during Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee, when he watched women in beautiful hats bob by in Westminster Abbey.
Ten years and several hat-making “how-to” books later, he sells elegant headwear out of his Essex Street shop, specializing in fascinators — thin bands decorated with elegant ribbon, feathers, and fabric.
“The fascinator is a takeoff of the 1950s cocktail hat,” he says. These days, he says, the whimsical headpieces are a great alternative for women on the go because they are lightweight, don’t require combs or pins, and can be easily adjusted.
Hat-making for these North Shore milliners is a passion that has to be juggled along with families and jobs. Manolagas says she squeezes creative time in after her 7-year-old son is in bed. She works in a studio that doubles as his playroom. Graham also prefers to work at home at night while watching television. He keeps his sewing machine beneath the kitchen table for easy access.
Pedemonti-DiPietro stitches hats — which typically take three weeks to complete — in front of the TV surrounded by her five cats, one dog, and a husband who is often snoring on the couch. “He doesn’t know it,” she chuckles, “but I often put the hats on his head to help me get an idea how they look.”
Though they may keep similar hours, the artists use very different materials. Graham buys his adornments online, choosing exotic bird feathers and yards of romantic veiling. He prefers hand-stitched silk flowers to the polyester blossoms that decorate many store-bought hats.
Manolagas gets much of her material from hand-me-down clothing and cast-offs. She snips up silk scarves, yanks off silver buttons, and revels in recycling brightly colored items from her closet. One purple suit, she says, recently yielded six hats.
Pedemonti-DiPietro also recycles old clothing in her hats, but finds inspiration in embroidered handkerchiefs, vintage aprons, and other antique-store finds. She uses buckram as a base for her hats; the stiff material is soaked in water, then molded into shape on a wooden form. The process is difficult and painful, as the pieces of buckram must be cut to size, fitted with wiring, and then stitched together.
“The buckram is hard to get through with a needle,” says Pedemonti-DiPietro, who uses duct tape to protect her fingers from punctures.
Movies, magazines, and books are common inspiration for the artists. Manolagas soaks up the ribbons, roses, and bonnet-style hats from “Gone with the Wind,’’ while Graham turns to fashion magazines like Women’s Wear Daily. Pedemonti-DiPietro, who cites British milliner Stephen Jones as her fashion hero, says the colorful illustrations in children’s books inspire her many playful hats.
Still on the fence about whether to strut your stuff in a hat this spring? Wearing a hat, Graham says, can help improve posture by making you stand taller. And a hat can make you stand out from the crowd like a red silk rose in a sea of polyester.