Stephen Jones is a celebrated British milliner who creates gloriously glamorous hats that are worn by fashion models on the catwalk, social swells at royal weddings and aristocrats when they are doing aristocratic things. Jones, an officer of the Order of the British Empire, is a star in his own right, but in his decades-long career, he has also collaborated with countless world-class design houses. He's made elegant turbans and dramatic gaucho hats for Marc Jacobs and jaunty newsboy caps for Dior. He's even dreamed up enormous fur dog heads for Thom Browne.
But for fall 2018, he has created a hat named after Elaine Nichols. Nichols is not a fashion insider, a society lady or a noble. She’s an academic: the senior curator of culture at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Nichols welcomed Jones to the museum a year ago when he was researching the tradition of hat-wearing in the African American community. The “Elaine Nichols” hat is part of the resulting collection — one that celebrates icons of black style, such as Josephine Baker and Nina Simone, as well as the generations of anonymous black women who have expressed themselves through millinery.
The “Elaine Nichols” is a special thank you to the curator and to the museum — both of which deeply informed his work. The hat, in shades of caramel, chocolate and mocha, is like an extravagant layered dessert with its shape inspired by the David Adjaye-designed museum itself. Its base is a cloche. And as it rises three levels skyward, it takes on the grandeur of a crown. But it’s collapsible; a woman could pack it into her carry-on. It’s portable glamour.
This hat, like so much of Jones’s work, is terribly chic. It evokes Harlem Renaissance sophistication mixed with modern-age swagger. And for many women — for whom a knit beanie and a baseball cap are the extent of their millinery wardrobe — this hat could be far too intimidating to wear.
Those women, however, are probably not African American, and they certainly did not come of age in the black church where, on any given Sunday morning, many parishioners can be found settled into their regular pew and wearing a hat. The hat tradition reaches its zenith on Easter Sunday, but it’s on full display at Mother’s Day celebrations, communion services and most any form of fellowship that involves brunch.
There’s no neat explanation for how, as Jones describes it, “a British white man” came to be captivated by the grand tradition of black women and hats. The fashion muse is capricious and inscrutable sometimes, but it always tells us something about ourselves. “Why does fashion make any sense? It reflects our life and times,” Jones says.
Jones’s interest was piqued by news stories about immigrants and refugees, by Edward Enninful becoming the first black editor in chief of British Vogue, and by the stray memory of Naomi Campbell wearing one of his hats in the early days of her career. “It was a hundred little things,” Jones says. But ultimately, “it just seemed to be the right thing.”
In many ways, his research began and ended at the museum. When he arrived he was, as so many visitors are, stopped by its architecture. “Viewing it from the outside, it was just, ‘Wow.’ What an extraordinary building. ... I understood the important place that it had been given on the National Mall. And then I found out about its popularity and the wait to get in. I thought there must have been a vacuum. Its popularity is not just because it’s a good museum but because there was a need for it.”
He waited at the desk downstairs, “and this smiling woman appeared wearing a hat and looking fabulous.” That was Nichols. They headed upstairs so he could view the collection from Mae’s Millinery Shop, a Philadelphia institution founded by an African American milliner in 1940. Mae Reeves’s work adorned church ladies, professional women and celebrities such as Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. (The shop closed in 1997.)
He explored the lower levels of the museum, too, which tell the story of the middle passage and Jim Crow. “I learned the story of the slave trade in school. Liverpool and Manchester — ships set out from there to West Africa,” he says. “But to see [the story] there in front of you … to see the little plan of how you line [slaves] up in a ship, how you pack in absolutely as many as possible so you’d still have a certain amount when you arrived — I cried reading that.” Jones spent hours touring the museum, including sitting quietly in the Contemplative Court “thinking about what humans can do to each other.”
When he returned to London, he poured what he had seen and felt into a collection called “Crowns.” The title recalls the book of the same name by photographer Michael Cunningham and writer Craig Marberry, which celebrates African American women and their hats. Jones names all of his hats, and this collection is filled with tributes to African American music, to black beauty, to faith and to history. White gardenias adorn the “Billie Holiday” fascinator. For “The Reverend’s Wife,” Jones transformed a cloche into an iridescent architectural wonder that calls to mind some otherworldly cathedral. The black and white double discs of “Faith & Fashion” celebrate how both concepts thrive in the black church. And a cloud of white ostrich feathers speak of extravagant femininity in the hat named “Mae Reeves.”
But it’s the “Elaine Nichols” that captures the heart of Jones’s inspiration: the humanity of the individual juxtaposed with the sweep of history, the beauty of hope emerging from immeasurable pain. “That’s the wonderful power of fashion: how magical and transforming and optimistic clothing can be in the most dire of circumstances,” Jones says. “That’s captured by a hat — this fun thing that you put on your head that tells a story.”