Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

The Many Hats of the Mingei

A Huichol hat from Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Mingei International Museum

Hats and Headdresses, an exhibition of head coverings from five continents, is in the gallery just outside the administrative area of my museum (San Diego’s Mingei International Museum). I know it is not just MY museum; it’s everybody’s museum, like mingei is everybody’s art (min: all, people; gei: art ). But I’ve worked here a long time, and I was a volunteer for a long time before that, so by now I feel possessive. I love the idea that the museum “collects, conserves and exhibits objects of daily use,” another way of saying “arts of the people” or “everybody’s art” from all times and places. These are expressions of the whole person---body, mind, and spirit---beautiful objects made, mostly by hand, for daily use.

The museum’s collection includes fascinating head coverings from many different cultures, and those who plan our exhibitions decided it was time to put them in a gallery to see if they could play together nicely. They can. I visit them often and wish I could try some of them on. I’d love to put on the Bolivian bowler or one of the silver crowns from Guizhou. There is a chic straw sunhat from Japan that would look wonderful at a rakish angle, a giant, red Tam o’ Shanter from the Zulu culture that means business, and a prim straw bonnet, circa 1860, perfect for traveling in a Conestoga wagon. There are beaded hats, flowered hats, bamboo hats, and even hats made from gourds.

I like hats, both to wear and to admire. When I was young, I was quite taken with the feathered hats then in style, and I looked forward to wearing them when I grew up, but by the time one would have been appropriate, they were no longer in vogue. By then, coiffures had become an art form all their own, and light veils or pillbox hats that complemented arduously teased bouffant hairdos were the rage.

Now that Hats and Headdresses has arrived at the museum, and I have a world-encompassing millinery display to enjoy, I’m seeing some pretty good feathers again, the most extravagant of which come from the Amazon and are worn almost exclusively by men for special occasions. (This does not include young men who have to wait until after their coming-of-age ceremonies to sport them.) In some cultures, the head is considered the most important part of the body, the seat of the soul, and headdresses made of feathers are prized as adornment for this sacred area. From Amazonia come haloes of long feathers that encircle the wearer’s face, and exquisite caps and crowns. There is also one charming cloche fit for any flapper. Speaking of flappers, the exceptions to the feathers-for-men-only rule are the women of Kayapo culture of central Brazil, who wear feathers for their naming ceremonies.

A mosquito fire dance mask from the Baining people of Papua New Guinea. Photo courtesy of the Mingei International Museum

Important as the brilliant color of the plumage is, there is a more profound reason for using feathers in these traditional headdresses. Birds are held by many cultures to be intermediaries between men and higher powers, and wearing their feathers is a symbol of protection and spiritual strength. Amazonian shamans, for instance, wear feathers as a sign of their connection to these bird spirits. Not everyday accessories, these magnificent yet fragile creations are worn for ceremonies such as initiations and funerals, during social visits, to identify with one’s group or when exercising political power. They also indicate status or prowess, as a hunter, a provider, or a leader.

Among the most often used feathers are those of macaws, parrots, and toucans, but eagles, roseate spoonbills, and hummingbirds are also seen on these elaborate creations. Although often hunted for both meat and feathers, some birds are raised for their feathers alone. Young birds that are captured to be reared in villages are plucked judiciously and their feathers are allowed to grow back before they are plucked again, thus ensuring a continuing supply. Birds kept in this way include curassows, guans, and rheas as well as macaws, parrots, and toucans.

Some headdresses display a hierarchy of feathers, with the plumage of high-soaring birds---such as eagles and canopy dwellers like macaws and parrots---supplying the long feathers that reach well above the wearer, and the plumes of ground-dwellers like curassows supplying the short feathers close to the head. Because these headdresses are primarily ceremonial, they are carefully packed in boxes or baskets by their owners when not in use, often with long feathers removed to facilitate storage.

Feathered headwear is not confined to Amazonia. Three brimmed straw hats from Mexico’s Huichol culture are on display, and employ feathers as decorative elements. The apparently random placement of the feathers is a playful element. In one case, they appear to have dropped from the sky and arranged themselves willy-nilly on crown and brim. The Baining people of Papua New Guinea decorated the antennae of a monumental tapa and bamboo Fire Dance (Mosquito) Mask with delicate white feathers that look like down. Another headdress from Papua New Guinea is a charming hat with long, thin black feathers rising from its crown that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld’s neighbor Kramer’s hair.

One more feathered hat comes from a location that may not seem exotic to us, but might seem so to someone from Papua New Guinea or Amazonia. It’s from San Diego, of course, a knock-out concoction by Walter Chapman, one of the artists featured in the recent exhibition San Diego's Craft Revolution.

Although there is nary a feather from Africa in the exhibition, there are birds. Two kings' crowns from Nigeria’s Yoruba culture are made of beads as brightly colored as any macaw feather, and are topped by prudent beaded birds that function as conduits from the spirits above to the wise ruler beneath. Not to be outdone, the Long Skirt Mountain Miao of Guizhou in China dress their eligible daughters in silver and embroidery, topping them off with intricate silver crowns adorned with totemic symbols and legendary creatures. The one in our gallery bears a flock of alert, silver phoenixes that appears to have recently landed on the flowered silver crown.

What fun it would be to see all these hats and headdresses in their native settings! I wonder if there’s such a thing as a hat tour. At least I’m sure that on my next trip I’ll buy a hat.

A version of this post first appeared on the Mingei International Museum blog.

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