Headdress with coins

Inside “The Global Language of Headwear”

A Kayapo/Mekranoti headdress from Brazil made of feathers, cotton, and reed. A Shinto Priest’s Hat from Japan made of silk, wood, and metal. A Woman’s Skullcap from Afghanistan is made of cotton, metal, and coins. These are just a few of the stunning headdresses on display in The Global Language of Headwear, on view in the Lightcatcher building Feb. 1 – April 26, 2020.

This exhibition features 87 headdresses curated from Stacey W. Miller’s private collection of more than 1,300 extraordinary pieces of international headwear. The pieces hail from 42 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and South America.

As an independent curator of ethnographic headwear, Miller has spent decades collecting and researching headwear. For her, headwear offers a window through which to learn more about other cultures. Beyond being wearable works of art, each piece has profound significance, often reinforcing spiritual and social values.

The Global Language of Headwear

The Global Language of Headwear is on tour in collaboration with International Arts and Artists, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding and exposure to the arts internationally.

Visitors to the Whatcom Museum will notice the exhibition is organized into five themes: cultural identity; power, prestige, and status; ceremonies and celebrations; spiritual beliefs; and protection. While the pieces on display are visually and culturally diverse, most are from the mid-to-late 20th century.

In touring these diverse headdresses, Miller and International Arts and Artists are hoping to encourage “an awareness of cultural differences and an appreciation of basic human commonalities.”

Headwear with colorful pompoms
Quechuan Wool Hat, Peru, wool, glass beads.
Headdress with colored feathers
Cameroon Bamileke JuJu Headdress (Tyn) late 20th century, fiber, feathers, string.

How it started

Miller started collecting global headwear somewhat unintentionally. In 1979, while living in Spain after college, Miller joined a group of strangers on an overland trip to India. It was on that journey that her collection began.

“I bought my first hat in Istanbul, an inexpensive souvenir that disappeared into my backpack but evokes memories of Turkey,” she recalls.

She purchased more hats during that trip, and her collection grew as she became fascinated by the variety of designs and materials.

“Through research, I was increasingly aware that each country has traditional headwear that is unique and meaningful to its cultures and its people.”

As an avid traveler, Miller picks up many of the headdresses herself. She estimates that about one-third are directly from her trips.

Other pieces come to the collection from friends and family who seek out hats during their travels. “They often report back that the search was one of the highlights of their trip.”

Miller also uses the internet and social media to track down hats, often connecting with strangers across the globe. “The internet has been a godsend for both finding hats and conducting research.”

Contributions from the Whatcom Museum

In addition to the headwear from Miller, the Whatcom Museum is contributing at least seven pieces from its permanent collection, including Northwest Coast cedar bark hats.

Victoria Blackwell, director of exhibitions and programming, says the headwear exhibit is the perfect time to showcase some of the Museum’s lesser-known pieces. That includes two Victorian hats — a wedding cap and mourning cap — as well as a tatami kabuto helmet from Japan.

Blackwell says the kabuto helmet pre-dates the samurai class in Japan and have been dated back to the fifth century. The samurai later took up wearing these types of helmets. The one on display from the Museum’s collection would have been worn by lower-ranking foot soldiers.

The helmet was gifted to the Museum in 1971. “We’d never get to exhibit this otherwise,” she says. “This is our chance.” 

Blackwell says she sought to link the Museum’s pieces to some of the themes in the exhibit. The Victorian hats relate to ceremonies and celebrations, while the tatami kabuto is for protection.

“There aren’t that many opportunities to reflect cultures on a global level,” Blackwell says. “While many of these hats aren’t specific to the Pacific Northwest, the themes they represent are universal.”

Beyond the hats, there will be multiple interactive opportunities. A 6-foot-long magnetic map will encourage visitors to match hat silhouettes to their country of origin. The exhibition also features several touch stations. The stations will allow visitors to feel materials used in some of the hats, from karakul wool to cowrie shells.

The Museum will host two related events: a felted hat workshop with Flora Carlile-Kovacs and a lecture with millinery designer Wayne Wichern.

Kabuto helmet
Tatami kabuto helmet from the Museum's collection.
Mourning headdresses
Victorian headdresses from the Museum's collection.

The future

At home in Rochester, New York, Miller has about 150 hats on display throughout her house. Moving forward, her goal is to write a book about her collection. She wants to continue to share her stories of headwear, people, and places with a wider audience.

“It’s really easy to look at some of these and think ‘I can’t believe people wear these,’” she says. “I think they are a temptation to judge people just because they’re unfamiliar. But what may look odd to one person isn’t odd to everyone. They really represent something that everyone has in common.”

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