‘Hats Made Me’ and The Significance of Headwear

Courtesy of Philip Treacy

The Culture Trust, Luton, is presenting Hats Made Me, a major exhibition that explores the significance of headwear. Comprised of more than two hundred exhibits drawn from the Trust’s extensive collection, along with loans from contemporary milliners and local communities, it is the largest presentation of its type.

Appropriately it is being staged in Luton, the Bedfordshire town that dominated the British hat industry from the 19th century to the post-war period.

Courtesy of Lomax & Skinner and Katie Vandyck

Hats Made Me is divided into four reasons why we wear headwear: ‘practical’, ‘symbolic’, ‘aesthetic’ and ‘transformative.’ ‘Practical’ deals with hats used across the globe to protect the wearer from the elements, and during sport and leisure, as well as to unify people during education, political campaigns and when representing their country. Exhibits on display include a traditional policeman’s ‘custodian’ helmet. Dating from the 1960s, it is made from plaited straw as opposed to the traditional cork, offering extra breathing room and shade from the sun. Other items include a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker, a floral sun bonnet, and for extreme conditions, an early 20th century kha-mauk from Myanmar and an Italian raffia cycling helmet.

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Meanwhile, a more contemporary note is struck by celebrated milliner Jo Miller’s red snug cap. Made in 2022 from natural latex rubber, it has the appearance of bumpy texture and is held in place by an integrated strap fitting underneath the chin.


Also on display is a Hövding’s ‘3 Helmet’, which utilises cutting-edge sensory and algorithmic technology to design a safer, more fashionable alternative to a cycling helmet. Dubbed by the manufacturers as ‘the safest helmet in the world,’ it is worn like a collar around the neck, where in the event of an accident, an airbag inflates over the head and cushions the fall. The ‘helmet’ also has Bluetooth technology to notify emergency contacts in the case of a mishap.

Courtesy of Hövding and Alexander Crispin

‘Symbolic’ explores the socio-economic status hats confer on the wearer — intricately woven, beautifully crafted and made from expensive and luxurious materials, these were often made to convey gravitas and power. For example, one can see several carved tortoiseshell 19th century hair combs, which sit alongside a luxe purple velvet hat worn by the paramount chief Massapacki in Northern Province, Sierra Leone. The gold-braided hat is labelled inside with the words, ‘High Class President Cap Bombay.’

Parts of the collection also represent Luton’s own cultural history: Vauxhall’s Miss Spectacular tiara, worn by the winner of a beauty pageant sponsored by Vauxhall Motors unites the hat and motoring industries that were pivotal to its former economic prosperity, along with the migrant workers it attracted. This is underscored with various headpieces which signify cultural heritage: durags, Irish Catholic communion veils, Ghanian ceremonial pieces, Muslim prayer caps and Sikh turbans all feature in the exhibit.


The ‘Aesthetic’ section of the exhibition celebrates the beautiful and exciting headwear we want to wear. From milliner Paul Stafford’s COVID-19 hat – constructed from surgical face masks – to Piers Atkinson’s iconic cherry headband – worn by singers such as Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Doja Cat – the exhibition presents several examples of trendsetting headwear. Numerous designs in the collection replicate and imitate hats worn by Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy, and other iconic figures. Other exhibits includes the history of styles that we wear over and over again, illustrated through a bucket hat with an Andy Warhol print of Blondie’s Debbie Harry, and Uptown Yardie’s crown inspired by the beaver fur hats worn by Jamaican reggae musicians in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Courtesy of Uptown Yardie

The ‘Transformative’ strand of the exhibition focuses on performance. Thanks to generous loans from the National Theatre and donations from the English National Opera, alongside contemporary theatrical milliners, the presentation exhibits a selection of headdresses that have featured eatured in street, stage and screen performances.

Highlights include a red visor design chosen by Beyoncé for Vogue magazine, an ornate tiara worn by Madonna in her Dark Ballet music video, a teal velvet hat donned by Kate Sharma in the Netflix hit show Bridgerton, and a Stephen Jones intricate headpiece worn by Cate Blanchett for her Oscar-nominated role playing the monarch in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. From Star Wars to Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman to Doctor Who, the exhibit displays several iconic headpieces that transport the wearer into an instantly recognisable character.


Developed by The Culture Trust’s Curator of Significant Collections, Hat Industry & Headwear, Yona Lesger, who joined freshly from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Hats Made Me will be supported by a programme of smaller events, including curated talks by contemporary milliners and costume designers, and smaller satellite exhibitions hosted in the Trust’s other venues. One such example is the display Showtime for Hats developed by Claire Strickland, a successful theatrical milliner who recently made Ian McKellen’s hat for Mother Goose (included in the display). This will focus on stage and screen headwear, taking just under twenty pieces made by the best-known theatrical milliners in the UK today, curated especially for the Trust.

© Culture Trust & Phil Giles

Samuel Javid, Creative Director of The Culture Trust, Luton, says ‘This is an incredible opportunity to see a world-class collection of hats and headwear. This is one of the largest exhibitions of its kind, pulling together practical and purposeful headwear, with wonderful and whimsical costume from stage and screen. This is a rare chance to see hats that defined an era, headwear that made a scene, and some special bits of pop-culture – like Johnny Depp’s pirate hat, and a space helmet worn by Matt Damon.’

Stockwood Discovery Centre London Road, Luton, LU1 4LX
22 April – 10 December 2023
Wednesday–Sunday, 11am–5pm
Adults £6.50, Concessions £4.50 + £1 booking fee | Under 10’s attend free


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