Wayne Wichern Volume 40.1

PAGLINA STRAW BRAID SKEINS, imported from Switzerland,   and parisisal straw cartwheels ,  imported from China.

PAGLINA STRAW BRAID SKEINS, imported from Switzerland, and parisisal straw cartwheels, imported from China.

Wayne Wichern has a lot of heads. He does not know the exact number, but it is more than a thousand, he estimates, divided between three studios. The cozy tribe greeting visitors to his suburban Seattle studio is comprised of four to five hundred of the sleek wooden forms, all about the size of a human head and all suggesting anthropomorphic sculptures, as though Constantin Brancusi decided to carve a village of people, leaving the details of bodies and faces to your imagination.

WICHERN using the Singer cylinder arm sewing machine to sew a head-size ribbon into the hat. Photograph by Jason Wells.

      Wichern is a hatmaker and the heads are hat blocks, the essential building units of traditional hatmaking. To make classic shapes, such as fedoras, using couture quality hat materials, like wool felt or parisisal straw, you need hat blocks. Wichern has spent thirty-two years collecting the blocks and they have been his constant companions as he has built a career as an artisanal hatmaker. A former ballet dancer whose interest in costuming led him to hatmaking for theater before leaping into couture millinery, he is happy to report that today hats are very much in style.

“The interest in hats has grown,” says Wichern. “There have been very interesting and popular costume shows, like the big fashion shows at The Met. And then there was Downton Abbey and other TV shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, where everyone wears hats. And there are the young royals,” he adds, referring to Queen Elizabeth’s grandsons and their photogenic wives, often photographed wearing eye-catching chapeaux. “I think one thing the young royals have done is to give young people permission to wear hats. It’s not just something that your grandmother did.” Hat shops carrying commercially manufactured hats are doing well, especially with young customers, Wichern notes, and the broader vogue for hats is reflected in his own business. “For the boutique milliner, working in a smaller, artisanal way, it’s never been better.” 

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      Wichern makes individual hats, by which he means handmade hats that are an elegant mix of traditional craftsmanship and contemporary attitude, often made for a specific customer. He makes such classic shapes as cloches, which are bell-shaped and suggest the 1920s or 1930s, and skimmers, which have crisp, flat-topped crowns and flat brims. He makes toques, turbans, fedoras, toppers, and hats whose large, outrageously swirling brims resemble crashing waves. He makes evening hats with names such as Wicked, Dahlia and Evening Rose. Any one of his black evening hats would transform the shyest wallflower into a femme fatale. Not long ago he created a skull-hugging black velvet cloche trimmed with fringes of dangling beadwork for a client with a taste for dramatic fashion. More beadwork rises like an opened fan at the front. Cleopatra could have worn such a headpiece to seduce any of her Roman paramours.

ANASTASIA of sage parisisal straw, dupioni silk, silk and velvet magnolia, and vintage silk veiling, 2010.

      Wichern makes hats on a speculative basis, hoping someone who drops by his Burlingame, California, studio will find one they like. He also holds trunk shows and participates in millinery and craft shows. Early in his career he made hats on a wholesale basis for small manufacturers, and he has made hats for millinery boutiques. But his favorite projects come from regular customers, some of whom commission him on a seasonal basis and for special events. “I have clients I just love. One is prone to bringing me bags of goodies. It could be a bit of fabric salvaged from the hem of a favorite dress. She wants to collaborate. It’s great. She presented me with a particular challenge when she brought me some beadwork that was white with a gold border, two pieces about eight inches each in length and triangular. They had been a neckpiece on something, and she wanted me to use them in a hat. She’s very much about telling me to do what I need to do. I thought and thought, couldn’t come up with anything, and was going to give the beaded pieces back. But then I started playing around with them, and sometimes something magical does happen.” The resulting chapeau is a cream wool felt cloche nearly hidden by the two beaded collars, which Wichern draped over the felt to make a turban shape. As a final touch he added a six-inch gold tassel from his vast trim collection. 

“My customers are people who have a sense of style,” Wichern says. “They are mature enough to know what to wear. People who buy my hats are people with experience. Most people who come to me are dedicated to hats, whether it’s for a special occasion or just to wear.” People who buy his hats are also women. The men’s hat market is entirely different, Wichern says, and would require different hat blocks and different types of felts. “When a man asks me if I would make a man’s hat, I usually tell him that if there’s something you really can’t buy commercially, maybe a bicorne, I’d be happy to work with you. But men’s hats are different, and you can’t be everything to everyone.” Wichern himself wears what he calls “low-key men’s shapes and berets,” none of which he makes.

Wichern creates hats the way professional milliners always have. He buys felt or straw basic hat shapes, called “cartwheels”, from commercial millinery suppliers, then molds them over hat blocks into an infinite number of sizes and styles. Because the brims and crowns of the blocks separate, he can create unique silhouettes by mixing and matching crowns and brims. The felt is wool or rabbit. The parisisal straw is from the sisal plant, and is the standard material for couture straw hats because it is finer than other straws and can be molded into more complicated shapes. 

WICHERN blocking a felt body over a wood hat block; the final task is using the compress tool to press the felt into the recess detail carved into the block.

      Making a hat is surprisingly physical. Millinery ateliers conjure images of artisans adjusting silk flowers on romantic, feminine styles. But hatmaking requires physical strength and an ability to work with high heat. To mold either felt or straw Wichern applies moisture to the material. For felt, he also needs the extreme heat produced by an industrial steamer. The moist hat forms then are tied down tautly with cord at the crown and the brim to create the basic silhouette. When Wichern demonstrates this he throws his shoulders, arms and hands into knotting the cord. Depending on the style, the hats also must be sculpted by hand, in the manner of a ceramist shaping a hunk of clay. If styles have areas that curve in and out on the crown, creating those shapes requires pressing removable parts of the block back into the felt, and tying or tacking that down as well. By happy coincidence, Wichern’s youth as a Wyoming farm boy followed by years of ballet training appear to have prepared him for the physical rigors of hatmaking.

When the hats are dry the next day, they are removed from the blocks, a process that can require a little wrestling. Wichern cuts excess straw or felt from the brim, finishes the brim edge on one of his several sewing machines, and sews a sizing ribbon into the inside crown. He then trims the hat, which could mean anything from sewing silk flowers to the brim to creating leaves and feathers out of salvaged bits of trimmed felt or straw. He saves every scrap of excess material to be repurposed into trim. He also collects beads, feathers, braid, ribbons, scraps of luxe fabric, silk flowers, bits of costume jewelry, and just about anything that might someday be useful as trim. In his Seattle studio he has turned a small bathroom into his trim room, and even the shower stall is stuffed floor to ceiling with plastic storage boxes filled with trims—an Ali Baba’s cave of adornments.

Wichern has always been motivated by aesthetics and artistry. After high school in Cody, Wyoming, he moved to Seattle to study floral design at a community college known for horticultural programs. His degree landed him a job at a floral shop in Bellingham, north of Seattle, where he worked happily for several years. “Then I discovered dance in about ‘78 or ‘79. Movies like The Turning Point and Chorus Line really made an impression on me, and though I was old to be taking up dance, I enrolled in ballet school in Bellingham. After a while my teacher told me I should move to New York to keep studying, so I did. Eventually I was in some regional companies. At those companies I would put in extra time in the costume shop. I had great hands, thanks to my work at the floral shop, and I enjoyed it. In retrospect, I think the extreme aesthetic of ballet comes through in my millinery; the attention to line and gesture that goes into hatmaking is related to ballet.”  

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      By 1985 the life of a professional dancer with its constant travel had lost its allure, and he moved back to Seattle, where he made hats for professional theater companies and worked in visual merchandising for what was then Seattle’s most prestigious department store. He found studio space and decided to learn all he could about couture millinery. He began taking classes from John Eaton, a milliner who had been one of Seattle’s most successful hatmakers in the mid-twentieth century, a time when no well-dressed man or woman attended a formal event without a hat. “John was retired by then and was giving classes casually in his basement. Then, at the point where he could no longer teach, he suggested I buy his stuff, so I did, and dragged it all over to my studio.” Eaton’s blocks were the beginning of Wichern’s collection, though he has added many hundreds since then via eBay and other internet sales sites. “Blocks have a way of finding me. People will be cleaning out grandma’s attic and find a few, and they find me on eBay. Over the years I’ve also purchased hundreds at a time when hat factories close or go offshore. I’ve sold off a lot, since I end up with duplicates.” His oldest blocks are from the 1930s, though many are newer. They have all become more precious as hat block production in the United States has nearly vanished. Most hat blocks today are manufactured in England or Australia.  

 

WICHERN Studio and classroom in Burlingame, California, Museum Studios, Peninsula Museum of Art.

 

      When his husband’s career took the couple from Seattle to the Bay Area in 2001, Wichern found a studio near San Francisco Airport. The location is ideal for the frequent workshops he teaches, which attract students from around the country. He also teaches at a shared studio he maintains in metropolitan Seattle, and at craft schools, including the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. “I enjoy teaching, and I think it’s partly because I didn’t have an official academic base myself when I started out. And teaching always helps me learn.” He notes that there are very few full-time programs in the U.S. where students can learn couture millinery, so he likes the idea that his teaching passes on the legacy of millinery craftsmanship. He also tries to give his students tips about the business side of boutique millinery. “When students ask me about pricing, it’s always a little awkward, but I understand the question. You can go with time and material, but that doesn’t always work. I tell them I’ve created a range of work for a range of prices. When people duck into my Burlingame studio and ask how much my hats are, I always smile and say they are one hundred twenty-five to four hundred eighty-five dollars, but that I can certainly make a more expensive hat if they like. That usually breaks the ice and if they like hats, they come in.”

LOREDANA SWIRL STRAW of raspberry parisisal straw, silk and rayon brocade fabric, 2006.

      For now Wichern’s career is at full throttle. But he is in his sixties, and looking ahead to what might eventually become of his block collection and his antique tools, such as his very old Willcox & Gibbs machine for sewing hemp straw braid into spirals for certain types of straw hats. His hats are included in the collections at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and in the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

“I’ve worked long and hard to create something. I rounded up the equipment, created an artisanal market, been successful, and enjoyed it all these years. I don’t want it go poof someday and be gone.” And because he is always surrounded by his old friends the hat blocks, he finds himself thinking of their future. “I often find inspiration from the blocks. I just love them, even though I haven’t had the occasion to use all of them. But it is time to start thinking about where they will all go. Maybe they can go to several people, or a museum. The legacy doesn’t have to be personal, but I do want it to be about the craft.”

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Robin Updike is an independent, Seattle-based writer. She has been following Wayne Wichern’s remarkable career as a custom hatmaker for more than twenty years. In those days she covered fashion and style for The Seattle Times and Wichern was part of a robust artisanal Seattle hatmaking community. “I remember Wayne as one of the highlights of a show of independent fashion being held in a cavernous former railroad station in front of a very large crowd. Theatrically dressed and wearing some of his own more dramatic hats, he kept the show entertained by swiftly fitting hats onto the models as they stalked down the runway. He has always had great flair.”

Degas and the Paris Millinery Trade Volume 39.4

 
An inveterate window-shopper, Degas often foregrounded the hats in his paintings, turning these overlooked accessories into the main event. Some of the same hats appeared in different Degas images, suggesting that he kept a collection in his studio.
SELF-PORTRAIT IN A SOFT HAT   by Edgar Degas, oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 26.0 x 19.1 centimeters, 1857.  Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

SELF-PORTRAIT IN A SOFT HAT by Edgar Degas, oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 26.0 x 19.1 centimeters, 1857. Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

In the late nineteenth century, hats were essential accessories for both men and women across the social spectrum. As an informal group of avant-garde artists—dubbed the Impressionists—began to reject traditional academic subjects in favor of painting scenes of everyday life in Paris, hats took center stage in canvases capturing the minutiae of the modern world. A new exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” unites intimate Impressionist paintings of Belle Epoque milliners and their clients with surviving examples of the chic chapeaux that inspired them.

      These flowered, feathered and frilled confections were works of art in their own right, with price tags to match; the Impressionists recognized their creators as kindred spirits. The milliners in their paintings are depicted as not just window dressing, but as fellow artists; in some scenes, such as The Milliners in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection, the colorful hats in their hands even resemble artist’s palettes. At its height, the Paris hatmaking industry employed nearly one thousand milliners, most of them female, ranging from famous names like Caroline Reboux and Jeanne Lanvin to anonymous ouvrières and trottins. In addition, the industry encompassed the major secondary trades that provided its materials, notably fleuristes, who created artificial flowers, and plumassiers, who prepared bird plumage. Although centered in Paris, millinery was a global trade, as feathers imported from Africa and South America adorned hats exported to New York and Chicago.

PARIS, RUE DU HAVRE by Jean Béraud, oil on canvas, 35.2 × 27.3 centimeters, 1882. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

      While milliners appear on streets and inside shops in the Impressionist paintings of Pierre-August Renoir, Édouard Manet, and Eva Gonzalès, no artist was more attuned to this engine of modern mercantilism than Edgar Degas, who explored the theme of millinery in twenty-seven paintings and pastels. Like the ballerinas and jockeys Degas is best known for painting, milliners occupied a marginal social space, where working-class artisans could mingle with the upper crust. An inveterate window-shopper along with his friend and fellow artist Mary Cassatt, Degas often foregrounded the hats in his paintings, turning these overlooked accessories into the main event. Some of the same hats appeared in different Degas images, suggesting that he kept a collection in his studio.

For Degas, hats represented modern commodity culture, as well as offering an endless source of variety, color and texture. While the capacious bonnets of the early nineteenth century protected the wearer’s face from the elements and her modesty from prying eyes, by the 1870s, women’s hats were purely ornamental, offering little protection from the elements. “A hat is nothing but a pretext for a feather, an excuse for a spray of flowers, the support for an aigrette, the fastening for a plume of Russian cock’s feathers,” wrote Charles Blanc in his 1875 treatise L’art dans la parure et dans le vêtement. “It is placed on the head, not to protect it, but so that one can see it better. Its great usefulness is to be charming.”

The capote (French for “hood”) popular in the 1850s and 1860s made a resurgence in the late 1880s for evening and reception wear. It was considered flattering to most faces and, though small in size, could be rich in ornamentation; one example in the show is made of silk tulle, velvet and pongee, a lightweight raw silk, topped by ostrich feathers. “The tendency now is to make [capotes] very decorative,” Vogue reported in 1893. “All sorts of jeweled passementerie, embroidered crêpes and tulles enter into their composition, and notwithstanding their diminutive size they are sometimes very costly.” In 1893, the duchesse de Maillé attended an exhibition opening wearing a capote “covered with mistletoe, the berries being represented by gigantic pearls and the leaves by emeralds, which attracted much notice, so close to nature was this costly imitation of Christmas ‘blossoms.’ ”

THE SHOP GIRL by James Tissot, oil on canvas, 146.05 x 101.6 centimeters, 1883-1885. Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

      Instead of shielding their wearer, hats increasingly served as blank canvases for all manner of trimmings and decorations, including not just feathers but the wings, heads and even entire bodies of birds. These avian ornaments lent dimension and visual interest to the low, brimless toque hats popular around the turn of the century. “Birds, alas, entire seagulls rest on these toques, or else a bird’s head forms the middle in front, the two wings spread out to cover the whole hat,” the weekly magazine La Semaine littéraire declared in 1901. These small toques quickly ballooned into wide, mushroom-shaped nests for pheasants, birds of paradise, hummingbirds, peacocks, and even owls, all mounted with glass eyes. Curiously, Degas never painted these birdlike hats, preferring to depict ostrich feathers, although probably for aesthetic rather than moral reasons.

In nineteenth-century France, colibri (French for “hummingbird”) was used as slang for a frivolous person, making the frolicsome creature an especially fitting fashion emblem. European and North American incursions into Central and South America made hummingbirds found there readily available to fashion dealers as well as specimen collectors. The tiny birds’ iridescent feathers, heads, skins, and even entire bodies were incorporated into hats and jewelry, including hummingbird-head earrings and brooches.

In 1911, it was estimated that the Paris fashion industry was responsible for the deaths of three hundred million birds per year. Growing concern over the rampant pillaging of exotic bird populations for their plumage led to the formation of England’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889 and America’s Audubon Society in 1913. The use of game and poultry feathers remained morally neutral, as did ostrich feathers, which could be plucked from the tail without harming the bird. As the tide of public opinion turned against so-called murderous millinery, French modistes increasingly employed their talents to lend exoticism to materials from non-endangered, domestic fowl like ducks and chickens, or create artificial “birds” out of feathers and glue.

Almost as popular as feathered hats were hats trimmed with artificial flowers, which tended to be worn in the summer and at the theater. Fashion designer Paul Poiret recalled in his memoirs that women’s hats transformed theaters into flower gardens. Fleuristes used a vast array of stamps, irons and goffers to transform delicate silks and muslins into flowers of astonishing botanical accuracy. Of the estimated twenty-four thousand fleuristes working in Paris between 1896 and 1906, eighty to eighty-five percent were women. Flowermaking was the profession of Nana, Emile Zola’s heroine, and Mimi, the title character of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème”—as well as Marie Dupuis, who became one of Renoir’s favorite models.

MME GEORGETTE: WOMAN’S HAT of black lace and artificial flowers on wire frame, 50.8 x 29.8 centimeters, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. WOMAN’S HAT of straw with ostrich feathers, silk lace and artificial flowers, 24.1 x 48.3 x 41.3 centimeters, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. MAISON VIROT: WOMAN’S HAT of plaited straw over wire frame, silk velvet and maline, silk roses, leaves, and ferns, with alterations, 39.4 x 38.1 centimeters, circa 1900. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. WOMAN’S HAT of silk faille, velvet, cord, jet beads, and African starling, 10.2 centimeters crown height, 21.0 x 22.9 centimeters overall, circa 1890. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

      Maison Camille Marchais was known for creating remarkably lifelike imitation flowers. The roses on the hats the firm exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 were so realistic “that a bee tried one,” a visitor observed. Customers could purchase artificial bouquets as well as flower-trimmed hats. “The extrachic... is to offer a mass of flowers from Camille Marchais,” the magazine La Grande revue reported in 1880. “The mass is stuffed with huge bunches of violets, gillyflowers, roses, daffodils... and at the base a clump of natural lily of the valley with one or two roses to complete the illusion; impossible to imagine anything more successful... because this bouquet is durable, whereas the bouquet from Nice is withered before it arrives.” So convincing was the illusion that the butler to a Russian princess allegedly ruined a bouquet Marchais had sent from Paris by plunging it into a vase of water. 

Artificial flowers could transform the humble shepherdesses’ sunhat into a garment fit for a queen. Flat, flower-trimmed straw hats in the bergère (shepherdess) style evoked the rustic wardrobe Marie-Antoinette had adopted a century earlier for playing milkmaid in her model village, Le Hameau. Le Magasin des Demoiselles dubbed similar hats “chapeaux Trianon,” after Le Petit Trianon, the queen’s miniature palace in the gardens of Versailles. These historical revival styles were popular during the reign of Empress Eugénie, who was fascinated by Marie-Antoinette and frequently dressed as the martyred queen for court masquerades.

THE MILLINERY SHOP by Edgar Degas, oil on canvas, 100.0 x 110.7 centimeters, 1879-1886. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

      A very different type of straw hat was the boater, so named because it was originally worn by men for yachting and other summer sports. It began to appear on women during the 1880s, often paired with tailored ensembles inspired by menswear. In 1884, Maud Watson won the first women’s singles championship at Wimbledon wearing a boater, which lent a masculine touch to her corseted and bustled tennis ensemble. It was a rare example of a unisex hat style in the Impressionist era and quickly became associated with the active, independent “New Woman” who so fascinated Degas and his contemporaries. In 1894, when a bicycling craze swept France, fashionable sportswomen paired voluminous bloomers and with tiny boaters perched on the tops of their heads. By the 1890s, boaters could be seen on city streets, trimmed with artificial flowers.

YOUNG GIRL ON THE GRASS by Berthe Morisot, oil canvas, 74 x 60 centimeters, 1885. Courtesy of Ordrupgaard Museum.

      Women’s hats grew in size along with fashionable hairstyles. The large, full coiffures of the early 1900s—often augmented by false hair—brought a corresponding inflation in hat size. Hats were worn perched atop these full coiffures, anchored by hatpins, which could be highly ornamental in their own right. A large bouquet of artificial flowers was one visual trick used to mask the gap between the smartly tilted hat and the hair.

While women’s hats were one-of-a-kind works of art created by modistes, men’s hats were typically made by male chapeliers (hatmakers) in a much more standardized style—a quality emphasized by Édouard Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera. Despite their uniformity, however, hats were one of many essential male accessories that enlivened and complicated the comparatively limited palette, range of garments, and choice of textiles available to men in the late nineteenth century. The top hat (chapeau haute de forme) was a formal hat worn day and night throughout the nineteenth century. Originally made of beaver felt, by the 1850s it was covered in gleaming silk. Although the top hat underwent minor changes in shape over time as the size and curvature of the crown and brim evolved, its phallic silhouette remained a distinctive aspect of menswear.

Degas abandoned his millinery subjects in the mid-1880s, only to return to them in the late 1890s, when he shifted his focus from the milliner’s customers to the milliner herself. These works, which experimented with color and abstraction, were very personal, not for sale; at the time of his death in 1917, Degas had several millinery pastels and paintings in his studio. By this time, millinery itself was on its last legs. Widespread backlash against the plumage trade and the outbreak of World War I doomed the once-ubiquitous hat. It shrank and shed its ornamentation, finally disappearing from everyday life. 

MASKED BALL AT THE OPERA by Édouard Manet, oil on canvas, 59.1 x 72.5 centimeters, 1873. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” exhibits
at the Saint Louis Art Museum through May 7, 2017 and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco,
from June 24 to September 24, 2017.

 

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles, and a frequent contributor to Ornament. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. She contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” currently showing at the Saint Louis Art Museum and then moving on to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor. Next up for Ornament is her article on Aileen Ribeiro.