Transgressing Couture: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

May 6, 2012 - Leave a Response

ticket courtesy of Shalaco Sching

The fashionable world of Jean Paul Gaultier, currently exhibited at the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, is bold and innovative, and illuminates the juxtapositions of fashion and social critique that propelled a haute revolution.   Intermingling intricate details on garments with light, media and motion effects, this must-see showcase includes his contemporary works ranging from the mid-1970s through to 2010.

Gaining notoriety through the iconic cone-shaped bra for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, as well as his famous call for men to wear skirts and kilts, Gaultier’s ouvre is filled with outrageously fashioned characters in which feminine attributes are re-imagined, gender roles shift and bend, beauty regenerates its veneer and cultural enclaves intermingle in unlikely ways.

Horse tail topper flipping the script

Known as the “enfant terrible” of French haute fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier’s designs and choice in models pointedly question standards of beauty,  inspiring arguments and criticism regarding what was appropriate for the elite realm of couture.  He broke away from the staid mold of French models; blonde, thin, and beautiful, and instead chose unconventional models of all colors, cultures and proportions – overweight, elderly, bald, body modifications.  When he did use more traditional beauty, he would mar it in some way, such as with lameness.

Mermaid with Crutches

Yet, if purists argued with his strong sexual vocabulary and street style mashups, no one could contest the exquisite craftsmanship with which Gaultier expressed his world view.

Laced hips

It was his designs referencing bondage and sexuality that perhaps brought the most fame, but what has been equally important to Gaultier’s thesis is the merging of ethnicity and gender, in which visually defining characteristics are broken down.  Inspiration was taken from his Parisian world in which African women immigrants wore men’s overcoats on top of traditional dresses, kids in London shocked light waves with vibrant colored hair and mohawks, and women unabashedly adorned their bodies from head to toe in tattoos.  Gaultier’s fetish is clearly eccentricity.

In contrast to contemporaries, such as John Galliano and his designs of exclusive wealth and fantasy, Gaultier’s refusal to conform to the haute couture since the very beginning sets him apart.  Yet, many of his clothes are a complete contrast to his more shocking work; quiet, subdued, beautifully tailored.

The exhibit includes 140 haute couture designs with several sketches, photographs, and video clips documenting Gaultier’s journey through fashion. What is most notable about this exhibit is how exquisite the clothes and hats are, masterfully sewn and detailed with elements of surprise. It is rare for the public to have such a close look at the hundreds of hours of work that typically goes into an extravagant, entirely hand stitched garment. Gaultier flaunts himself as a supreme craftsman, a force of culture and a contentious creative taboo to be reckoned with.

 Running March 24, 2012 – August 19, 2012 at the de Young museum.

Notoriety and the Topper

April 16, 2012 - Leave a Response

The first time the top hat was ever worn in public was in London on the head of John Hetherington in January 1797; and while today this style is refined and stately, the wildness of a tall stove-pipe top hat caused an upheaval in the streets. In barely no time at all, Hetherington drew a large crowd and was subsequently arrested on the spot.

The offense was described as followed: “Hetherington appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat … a tall structure having a shining luster, and calculated to frighten timid people. As a matter of fact … several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children began screaming, dogs yelped, and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas … was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken”. There was so much chaos that the officer grabbed Hetherington by the collar and gave him court summons for “disturbing the public peace”.

It was reported on the front page of The London Times that, “Hetherington’s hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear. We believe that both the court and the police made a mistake here.” And so it was born, and with such a ruckus, its no wonder that the top hat came to define the 19th century and continues to be worn today.

It’s easy to see from old photographs and drawings why the nineteenth century is sometimes know as the Century of the Top Hat. Men wore top hats for business, pleasure and formal occasions — pearl gray for daytime, black for day or night. The historian James Laver once made the observation that an assemblage of toppers looked like factory chimneys adding to the mood of the industrial era.

The Top Hat made a massive resurgence in the 1930’s when Fred Astaire brought it back into favor. Virtually all “men of the town” had one in their wardrobe, and dressing in “black tie” always included a Top Hat. Astaire’s influence even  brought the popularity of the Top Hat back to its origins in England and France.

Today, the Top Hat continues to play more a role of “statement”, rather than “costume”. Whereas so many other styles of hats tell a story of a specific era, the Top Hat possesses that timeless quality.  It is steeped in the tradition of both 19th Century Aristocracy, Heyday Hollywood Musical’s, and is still worn today for those very, very special occasions as a contemporary statement of importance and celebration.

Nowadays, Steampunk fashion is influencing a resurgence of the top hat made from leather to felt, vinyl to silk and in an array of shapes, sizes, textures and trims. Rising from relative obscurity, Steampunk has become an extraordinary trend, remixing styles from the Victorian era, classic Goth, gypsy, and industrial fetish to create a unique and beautiful other-worldly, Sci fi adventure look. Steampunk design balances form and function and repositions the top hat to its origin of cutting edge fashion.

The Beaver Hat, Then & Now.

April 3, 2012 - 5 Responses

For half a millennium, beaver felt was the most prized fur when it came to hatmaking. Most beaver hats were made popular in Europe during the mid-1500s to the late 1800s. Beavers came to Europe as a result of explorations of the new world. In North America they were trapped by Native Americans and afterwards, skinned. The skins were then stretched and dried before the Native Americans took them to trading posts where they exchanged the pelts (that shipped off to hatters) for guns and knives.


The reason why the beaver hat was “prized” above all other furs was that it felted readily into a dense, durable, and waterproof felt that had a silky sheen. The best beaver hats were made from beaver coats – these coats were made of beaver pelts worn by the Native Americans through the winters. The wear helped prepare the skins; the long guard hairs fell out from the pelt, separating and leaving only the soft under fur pelts. The soft under fur pelts were then used to make beaver felt hats.

It takes around four pounds of beaver pelts to get just enough fur for one felt hat. The supply and demand of beaver pelts was constantly changing its value. During the late 1700s and 1800s, beaver fur was in its greatest supply – beaver hats were readily available to most members of society. However, by the mid-1800s, the heavy demand for beaver pelts in Europe drove the beaver population to near-extinction – making beaver hats increasingly expensive.


As the demand for beaver hats increased, hatters made them with less and less beaver fur. Often the beaver fur was mixed with all types of other furs, such as rabbit, mole, wool, muskrat, etc. These mixed fur hats were called “stuff hats”. But when the demand for inexpensive beaver hats became even greater, the silk hat was created. The beaver hat’s popularity declined during the early/mid-1800s as silk hats began to rise. By the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, beaver hats were largely replaced by silk hats.

Back then, hats symbolized a person’s authority, status, and social standing – without a hat, a person had no position and no status. The more elaborate the hat, the higher the status and position of the wearer. As the hat plates indicate, there were many styles of beaver hats, from those denoting military status such as the “Continental” Cocked Hat (1776), the “Navy” Cocked Hat (1800), The Army (1837); to those indicating on civil status like the Clerical (18th century), the Wellington (1812), the Paris Beau (1815), the D’orsay (1820), and the Regent (1825).


Beaver felts reigned for decades and beaver hat is still considered the most prized felt of all for hats, softer, silkier, and more water-resistant than rabbit or sheep fur. Though nowadays, most felt hats are produced from other fur materials due to pricing concerns, you can still find 100% beaver hats at fine hat retailers, and within the O’Lover Hats collection. We have a selection of vintage beaver felts that were recovered from defunct hat manufacturers so as to not waste this incredibly precious material.

See more felt hats at O’Lover Hats

Move and Shake: Solidarity Wears a Hat

November 9, 2011 - Leave a Response

Oakland, CA, the town in which O’Lover Hats was born and continues to thrive in is a people’s town, full of entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity as well as mind expanding diversity and creativity.  The energy here has been electric these days, with our globally broadcast Occupy Oakland movement and the November 2nd General Strike that boasted 10’s of thousands marching, closing down Broadway, the City Center and eventually the Port, the 5th largest in the country.  There has been violence yet the most palpable sentiment is passion and self respect in the demand that an inequitable economic system be reexamined for reconstruction.

The current occupy movement links with the lineage of activists and lay people rising up to oppose inequality.  As a hatmaker and social historian, I am interested in how hats have both been a visual emblem for these movements as well as a vehicle in themselves for political dissent.

Emmeline Pankhurst Addresses Crowd

It wasn’t long ago that women had no voice in the political sphere, but to influence their husbands behind closed doors.  1903 was when the votes-for-women movement exploded in England and North America.  In the early years of the 20th century, the suffregettes, generators for voting equality, looked sharp in hats while they swarmed the streets in protest, were beatup and arrested by police and held their stance that women were citizens and deserved to have their voice be heard in the political arena.

Though at this time hats were worn daily by all, rather than for political sentiment, the images of these women in their hats engenders them as participants in society, thus subliminally affirming their cause.  While fighting for rights, their proper dress positions them to be self respecting amidst inhumane opposition.

A cultural realm where hats have boldly made political statement is that of stage and vaudeville.  In hats’ lengthy relationship with human heads, they have consistently distinguished both class and character and consequently been a prop to poke fun and comment on the social stratosphere.

The earliest vaudeville hat acts, known as “chapeaugraphy” involving a single performer with a large felt brim with a hole in the middle.  The artist would quickly twist and turn and manipulate the hat into a variety of shapes to create caricatures, sometimes as many as fifty in a ten minute performance.  These shows were riotously funny to crowds and held great popularity at different times from the 1750’s to the early 20th century.  Like most humor, it was the tension between saying what is obvious, but not always appropriate, providing the public with acts that highlight the taboo of rich and poor.

The bowler, one of the few hats consistently chosen by stage performers, was emphatically employed by Charlie Chaplin in his class satires during the 1920s and 30s.  His worn out, beaten hat brought emphasis to the yearning for dignity of down and out common men.  It infused his disheveled and trodden on characters with an ironic sense of importance.  These political dimensions rode heavy beneath the comedy, making the bowler a charged image that is still used today.

The beret, a hat of Basque origins and romantically associated with the French where it was commonly worn, was transformed into an emblem of revolution through the image of guerilla fighter, Che Guevara.  Though the hat is used by special military forces worldwide, due to Che’s iconic status it is also revered as a symbol for one who stands up for the people.  It was chosen by the Guardian Angels who patrol urban streets worldwide to offer protection to civilians from crimes and injustices.

The beret was officially part of the Black Panther movement, supporting the guerilla position of these determined activists who stood for justice from the police brutality and systemic racism rampant in the 60’s and 70’s.  Founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the group held headquarters in Oakland, Ca.  Though these days, here in Oakland, one is as likely to see a brightly colored mohawk as a personal political statement, I would love to see the 99% movement maintain a lineage with previous local protest movements, such as the Panther Party.  O’Lover Hats will be spreading solidarity by carrying the People’s Beret through the winter.  You can purchase one of these black wool hats at any of O’Lover Hats upcoming shows.  Make it a statement to share with the world.

The Life of a Dying Art

July 21, 2011 - Leave a Response

“You’re a hat maker? Now, that’s a dying art!” people say to me on occasion when we meet. There is a rich history of art forms dying as culture changes and today use of the term dying art is rampant, attached to an odd array of subjects from proofreading to stir fry, stenography, customer service, penmanship, kimono making, hanger flying, ballet, piano tuning, cursive and high school dissection.

The overuse of this sexy term does not dilute the powerful significance that art continues to hold, and though presently we are collectively experiencing expansive change, the death of various arts should not be feared or quickly assumed.

Today any finely expressed skill is often said to be art.  Art has become the catchall term for the best quality of work, referring to almost anything done with intention to do it well and with attention to detail and flow.  Placing a myriad of professional work on the same linguistic playing field as monumental paintings or sculptures indicates that artistic inclinations are common and seek various outlets.

Knowledge of 30,000 year-old Paleolithic cave paintings in France shines light to Homo sapiens’ longstanding drive to create art in the quest to bring greater significance to life. Art taps into an unspoken language and is a translation of the unseen to the seen.  No matter how many things are called art, it will always maintain a shimmer of mystery around it.  It holds an elusive yearning, an attunement to the sacred.  We talk about dying arts, not dead art because while form is tenuous, art is immortal.

There must be a reason for an art form to exist.  With the current rate of change in how people are working, communicating and spending their time, many modes of human expression are dramatically shifting.  If conveying one’s art, whatever it may be, is part of living a meaningful life then all the hype around dying arts sounds either like clamorous fear of change or a fascination with morbidity.  A dying civilization obsessed with death.

One look around the San Francisco Bay Area and you clearly see, hat making is not dying but experiencing a renaissance.  If you, like me, are intrigued with old arts, why not take a hat blocking workshop or visit the amazing upcoming local hat designer market.  Your experience of creativity will inspire.

To find out more visit O’Lover Hats website.

Will the Real Panama Hat Please Stand Up

May 30, 2011 - One Response

For over 150 years Ecuador’s prized export, the “Panama Hat” has been attributed to another country. The interesting fame these hats have cultivated result from the incredible history Ecuador has in producing some of the oldest known straw hats.  The actual, Ecuadorian name for these hats is “paja toquilla”, a name you can become accustomed to hearing more in the future.

In the mid 19th century, Panama was a lively trading spot, circulating an international array of goods amongst the opportunity seekers that gravitated there.  Ecuador’s masterfully woven hats became popular with gold prospectors and canal builders alike, who hailed from far reaches around the world.  This mass cultivated the name that would become a fixture in public discourse after it premiered at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris as the “Panama Hat”.

Since its first big entrance into society, this hat has developed an unsurpassed reputation that continues to this day. The quality and durability of the tightest woven “Panama Hats” allows them to command the highest price, tens of thousands of dollars for the most esteemed, by high caliber hat makers such as Brent Black’s Panama Hat Co of the Pacific.

That this illustrious commodity is attributed to another country could vex any nation that was robbed of credit.  Early in the 20th century, Ecuador attempted to clear up the matter, sending out an international telegram to consulates, “All Panama Hats are made in Ecuador”.  This provoked the haughty response, “We hear that you are now making Panama Hats in Ecuador.”

The curious stamp “Genuine Panama Hat made in Ecuador” can be seen as a polite jab at worldwide disregard for Ecuador’s declarations of ownership.  Weavers and other countrymen are obliged to use the misnomer for which they are secretly famous when talking to foreigners.  Yet amongst themselves, they refer to these hats by the material used that bears the nickname “paja toquilla”.

Like the majority of Ecuadorians, paja toquilla is of mestizo origin, deriving from the plant, ages of crafting it, and the influence of the Spanish colonization of the people.  Paja toquilla has been developed into hats in coastal Ecuador for over 6000 years. As long ago as 4000 BC, Valdivian cultural remains display ceramic figures wearing pointed straw hats.

The start of paja toquilla’s international reputation began when the Spanish conquistadors adopted the hats, praising their lightness, cooling properties and even the ability of the tight weaves to hold water.  The colonizers made record of Ecuador’s tradition, writing of the broad wing like hats of locals, calling them toquillas, after a Spanish word toca, a kind of headdress.

Ecuador’s long history wearing hats continues today in the quotidian dress of indigenous peoples up and down the Andes that split the coastal region from the jungle. Most of the styles are now European in origin due to the Spanish conquest, a brutal period in Ecuador’s history during which factories for straw hat production were set up in the Southern sierra around the city of Cuenca where the conditions were best for weaving the material.

With the development of ecotourism, Ecuador is growing in popularity abroad for its diversity and colorful creative culture.  Might Ecuador take this opportunity with a campaign for an appropriate name?  We can help start the trend by ourselves calling  them paja toquilla hats and subtly work to set the record straight.

to see our current spring styles visit

The Bowler Comes Back

November 22, 2010 - Leave a Response

The bowler began as an English hat style, originating back 160 years ago.  Its popularity spread across continents and class till it could be said that it was infused into the subconscious of Western culture.  The bowler broke the mold of what hats were prior to its entrance.  It is no surprise that, as hats are coming back into prominence, it is also enjoying renewed popularity.

Designed by Lock’s of St. James Street in 1850 for Sir Thomas William Coke, this was the first hat to have a hard top, a smart function for its commissioner was a game warden and would frequently go horse riding.   At first it was called the coke hat, yet as it grew in popularity with the London city gents, it took on the name bowler, since the design was in fact being produced by the Bowler family of Southwark.  Soon the bowler was offered in flexible styles as well, bridging a gap between the soft felt styles of the lower classes and the stiffer top hat styles of the upper classes.  The bowler was the first hat to be mass produced, making it more affordable and popular with the middle class.  It enjoyed many decades of prominence in men’s fashion, until it was surpassed by the fedora in the 1920s.

I have heard many people disagree on what is considered a derby and what is a bowler, usually mentioning something to do with differing shapes and sizes.  They are, however, essentially the same hat.  The bowler took on various dimensions at different times, and was called a derby when it came to America.  The derby was worn popularly by all classes of American tradesmen and artisans.

Hats typically denoted rank in society, but the bowler was the first hat worn across class and did not signify one particular mode of business.  Interestingly, it was one of the few hats chosen by stage and vaudeville entertainers, perhaps because it had become an icon of industrialization and power.  Charlie Chaplin most famously employed it to express the poor man’s woes.  Today, it is commonly seen as a comedic hat due to this legacy, yet its popularity with the creative genre of steampunk has now given this style a firm heading in the arts world as well.

The extent to which this hat seeped into the fabric of society is seen in Rene Magritte’s use of it as an cultural emblem in his surrealist paintings.

You can find a nice version of a beaver felt bowler in O’Lover Hats’ Made to Order Fall/Winter line.

Beached Trash Given New Residence

September 22, 2010 - Leave a Response

I have loved wandering and exploring beaches since I was a little girl in Seattle.  My family would take day outings to various locations around Puget Sound, and I anticipated the endless discovery that turning over rocks and examining tide pools produced.

Many stories have brought to awareness the damaging effects of the surplus of trash that we people continue to spew, and this fact would not be disputed by anyone who takes a trip to the local beach.  You cannot escape the plastic bags, styrofoam, soda bottles, cigarette buts, and endless varieties of trash lodged between rocks and sticking out from the sand.  Come back again at low tide to see how thick it really is. Much of the polystyrene becomes broken down so it mixes evenly in with the rocks and pebbles, purporting to be a part of the natural landscape.

Oddly, the multicolored plastic can at times appear beautiful, if one forgets the difficult ecological implications of our garbage working its way into the food chain.  I was inspired to clean up beaches in Alameda and incorporate the trash I found into some of my designs.

trim: plastic fishing ball with plastic packing strips

trim : tin lid with tab

trim: plastic bag

To learn more about the effects of our trash on the ecosystem visit the beautiful and disturbing work of photographer Chris Jordan who chronicles the death of pelicans in the most remote places in the Pacific.

Hats that Sing in the Rain

January 19, 2010 - One Response

It will be wet, wet, wet here on the California Coast these next couple of weeks.  Remember that not all hats are rain hats and wet weather can destroy your favorite hat if this is the case.  Hats that hold up to the rain are made from beaver fur felt, wool felt, thick weather-treated leather or vinyl.  If your hat is not made from one of these materials, you can maintain the shape, the size and the appearance of your hat by taking an umbrella out with you as you puddle dive.

If you get stuck in the rain in a felt or fabric hat that does not take well to the wet, pat it dry with a cloth as soon as you can, removing all excess dampness.  If your hat has a flat brim, you can press it with a medium-hot iron using a thin piece of cotton in between so the material does not get damaged from the direct heat of the metal.  This will help flatten out a brim that has become wavy from too much moisture in the past.

If you are caught by a surprise storm and your hat gets soaked, remember if it dries too quickly the hat can shrink.  A good tip is to put it back on your head before it dries completely, so it dries to the shape of your noggin and fits you proper again.  It is no fun to put on a hat that used to bring you joy, only to find that now it gives you a headache. And as a person who wears hats, you like to feel good.  Now let’s go singing and dancing in the rain.

A New Year For Could

January 15, 2010 - Leave a Response

As each new year begins I stretch out and take stock of what inspired me most about the previous year and how I can do more of that in the year to come.  Two questions come up again and again in this conversation that in the past seemed to oppose each other.  What must I do to maintain my happiness as a productive, contributing artist?  What must I do to maintain my business?

This balancing act can more broadly be expressed as the desire to do the work one wants versus the understanding that there are things that accompany these efforts that might not be as interesting or fulfilling, but that seem necessary to connect one’s work to the world without and generate income.

One tremendous gain I had last year was realizing that when I use the word “should” in mind or conversation, I take away my free will, the source of creative juiciness.  When I replace the word should with could, I find that the things I do to grow and develop the business of my creative work become more enticing as I allow myself a choice in the matter.  Using the thought and phrase, “I could do this or I could not do this” allows me to slow down and saunter along in wonder, What do I really want and how do I go about creating this?  Is this thing I believe I must do really necessary?  Why do I believe it is necessary?  What else could I do to achieve a similar result that might be more fun or more in line with who I am in this process?

At times when I am faced with things I must do it is wonderful to remember, even in these instances of “have to” there is usually an option.  Oftentimes reframing a “must do” as a choice involves changing my perspective on the action or task in front of me, to remember how it is I brought myself to this place and what the task accomplishes in regards to my life’s dreams and desires.  As I go through the motions, if I focus on why, in the end, this “must do” piece of work is meaningful, then I open up to alternatives in execution that can make it more of a creative act.  Perhaps there is something stylistically that can be done that more rightly reflects my nature.  I have not been stymied yet using this approach.

What do you really want for your creative development this year?  What could you do to activate this?  Replace the word should with could to release your free will and open up to the realm of possibility.  Sometimes the results you seek can be achieved in ways you didn’t anticipate.