Hood Museum of Art

Dartmouth College

Hanover, NH



Completing the Picture: Hats, Fashion and Fine Art


"A woman must constantly bear in mind that 'the hat is to the rest of the attire what the coping stone is to a building--a crowning effect'." This sentiment, expressed by author "Laurette" in her 1920s publication Millinery, How to Judge and Buy, was passed down from prior centuries of fashion. Whether worn inside, outdoors, at sporting events or formal affairs, in mourning or in celebration, hats were essential to a woman's wardrobe until the mid-twentieth century. Not only were they a symbol of social status and character, but they completed the changing silhouettes of fashion through the ages. A striking new exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art, "Completing the Picture: Hats, Fashion, and Fine Art," will explore the history, etiquette, and evolution of women's hats in America from 1820 to 1930. Fine paintings, photographs, and even caricatures featuring a variety of hats are brought to life with twenty full-size mannequins showcasing related American clothing, hats, and other accessories from the Hood Museum of Art's Henry B. Williams Costume Collection. (left: Edmund Tarbell, Summer Breeze, 1904-1905, Anonymous Gift, 1992.1, The Currier Gallery of Art)

Curated by Margaret Spicer, Professor of Drama at Dartmouth College and adjunct curator of the Williams Costume Collection, "Completing the Picture" is on view from March 28 through September 24, 2000.

Fashion in early nineteenth-century America often copied styles worn in Europe. During the 1820s, fashionable waistlines departed from the high placement of the Empire-style dress and took on a new shape defined by the corset. Widening skirts and puffed leg-of-mutton sleeves emphasized the hourglass effect of tight-lacing. Echoing the expanding shape and ornamentation of the dress, hats grew in proportion and perched on heads of hair adorned by masses of elaborate curls and chignons. Day caps, commonly worn in the home, now sported frills and ribbons. Turbans metamorphosed into wide-brimmed hats made of straw, silk, and satin. In keeping with the ornamentation of the dress, they were often trimmed with lace, ribbons, flowers, and feathers.

Mrs. Daniel Webster (1781-1828) wore an elegant version of the wide-brimmed hat for the 1825 cornerstone-laying ceremony of the Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts. It was on this occasion that Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster delivered his celebrated speech outlining the principles behind the American Revolution. Two years later, Boston painter Chester Harding captured the distinctive attire worn by Mrs. Webster on that auspicious occasion in a portrait he began several months before her death. Dominating the entrance to the exhibition, this likeness, now in the collection of the Hood Museum of Art, features Mrs. Webster in an elegant dress known as a "pelisse robe," made of gray silk and decorated with scalloped silk cording at the collar and cuffs. Inserted at the neck of the dress is a white "chemisette" or "tucker" edged with lace, which matches the frilled white cap worn under her gray hat. The crowning touch is a wide-brimmed hat covered in a mass of gray silk and bows, which adds a sense of formality and importance to Mrs. Webster's dignified yet delicate presence.

By the late 1830s, flamboyant fashions gave way to an ideal of modesty and delicacy. The silhouette grew more contained as skirts lengthened, sleeves tightened, and hairstyles were simplified. Fanciful hats faded as close-fitting bonnets became the mode. Tied under the chin, these hats shielded the sides of the face from both the rays of the sun and the eyes of inquisitive people. The bonnet style continued with some variation for more than three decades as skirts once again became enormous, then softened again.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the emerging interest in tailored clothing and millinery is well-illustrated by In the Beech Wood (1862-64) by American genre painter George Cochran Lambdin. A young woman sits tentatively in the woods while her soldier-lover carves their initials in a tree. Wearing a simple full brown skirt and jacket, she holds in her hands a modest, flat, "pork-pie" hat decorated with a single black feather.

By the mid-1870s, fashionable women wore skirts that were flat in the front with a soft bustle at the back. Hair was piled high at the back of the head with cascading ringlets to replicate the line of the bustle dress. Small, ornate hats completed the picture by perching on the forehead with a veil or ribbons trailing behind so as not to disturb the hair.

Renowned portrait painter John Singer Sargent captured the incredible sense of high fashion during the 1880s in his striking portrait of a vivacious Madame Escudier (1882-84). Sargent emphasizes the sitter's hat, which is central to her overall appearance and style. A decorative mound of wide white ribbons on the top of her hat makes a bold statement against her black dress and a painted backdrop of deep Prussian blue. (right: John Singer Sargent, Madame Escudier , 1882-84, oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts)

At the turn of the twentieth century, the graceful s-curve silhouette came into fashion. Hats were worn at an angle on top of masses of hair arranged in the "Gibson Girl" manner. In his 1904 painting Summer Breeze, Edmund C. Tarbell captures the s-curve silhouette of the period in a profile view of a young woman holding onto her straw hat and veil against the wind.

One of the most stunning paintings in the exhibition is Lilla Cabot Perry's monumental canvas of 1914, The Black Hat. The sitter is dramatically attired in a lace-trimmed black gown and a single strand of pearls. Her large black velvet hat throws a shadow across her face that accentuates her contemplative, almost melancholy, expression. This painting is presented with four mannequins in the exhibition, each accessorized with the enormous hats popular in the years preceding World War I. (left: Lilla Cabot Perry, The Black Hat, 1914, Gift of Mrs. Albert Levitt, Mrs. Anita English, and Mrs. Cecil B. Lyon, 1982.28, The Currier Gallery of Art)

To conclude the exhibition, a selection of elegant dresses and hats from the 1920s illustrates the dramatic changes in women's clothing following the end of World War I. Although hats remained an important part of women's attire until after World War II, the decade of the 1920s liberated women from the corsets, crinolines, bustles and petticoats so integral to the fashionable silhouettes of the previous century.

A film series accompanies the exhibition. "Completing the Picture: Hats and Fashion in Film," consists of nine feature films made within the last twenty years, each of which showcases costumes from a different decade between 1820 and 1930. Visitors to the Hood Museum of Art can make comparisons between the film costumes, the real clothes, and the fine art of each period.

"Completing the Picture: Hats, Fashion, and Fine Art" has been organized by the Hood Museum of Art. The exhibition is made possible through the generosity of The Phillip Fowler 1927 Memorial Fund.

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