By Helen R Cobby, on 5 November 2013
Subversive Millinery was an eclectic, creative and colourful evening event at the UCL Art Museum. It comprised of a mini art history lecture on the role and significance of hats, and a hands-on practical workshop where participants were encouraged to create their own beautiful hat or fascinator. This fun mix was led by Sue Walker, who completed her MA and PhD in art history at UCL, specialising in 18th and 19th century French prints.
Sue began by explaining why she had become obsessed with hat making and encouraging communal creativity. She felt it was predominantly triggered from feeling disconnected with art objects after studying so much theory. She decided to start making things and focused on fashion as a way to get others involved and interested because it is something everyone is affected by and has opinions about. This idea of making judgments and engaging with ideas through ‘visual signs’, such as those of fashion, is fundamental to art historical questions that ask ‘what is it and what do we do when we make a visual sign?’
Her making took off when she started making hats out of recycled materials and giving them away. It became a way of sharing and connecting with others. She even found herself making hats on the tube and having conversations about art with people she was sitting next to. This idea of inclusivity is supported in her ‘punk approach’ to hat making: just like punk music that is based around three chords, Sue constructs her hats around three elements that do not necessarily involve sewing – which she insists makes it possible for everyone to have a go!
Sue also views her project as illustrating a valuable lesson. Very few materials are required to make each hat, so the process of making becomes a reminder that we always need less than we think. Similarly, Sue encourages ‘intelligent making’, which means that you need to question what effects you want to achieve, and what materials and forms can be used to do this.
Finally, before the making began, the meaning of the workshop’s title was unpicked and the various associations with hats were discussed. Sue suggested that ‘hats can represent power and social convention. But because they can be taken on and off so easily, they can be used to challenge conventional identity’. These ideas were then thought about in relation to some of the artwork in the UCL Art Museum collection. These included Norma Bessouet’s ‘Self Portrait’ from 1972 and the famous hand-coloured etching called ‘Louis Seize en Bonnet des Jacobins Donne au Roi’ from 1792, (see images below).
The results at the end of the workshop were fantastic – everyone had done such different designs for their hats and used different techniques. It was great to see how diverse hats could be and how such a variety of outcomes could be achieved from a relatively small amount of materials.
Images of the beautiful hats made during the workshop are below:
This course was so popular and enjoyable that the are plans to do more of them at the UCL Art Museum after the New Year. Start looking out for materials scraps to recycle into a subversive yet stylish hat…
Helen Cobby is a volunteer at UCL Art Museum and is studying an MA in The History of Art at UCL.