If hats could talk, one can only imagine the conversations that might take place between those currently on display in the Royal Pavilion’s Banqueting Hall. The 26 ‘seated’ at the banqueting table where the Prince Regent once hosted his lavish dinner parties are – but for one – all the work of Stephen Jones, a milliner whose list of famous clients would stretch all the way down Madeira Drive.
In this particular exhibit, the centrepiece of a spectacular career-spanning retrospective, Tilda Swinton (or her headpiece, at least) mingles with Cindy Crawford; Lady Gaga could swap gossip with Princess Diana, and Mick Jagger share a drink with Kate Moss. At the head of the table, of course, sits Prinny himself, in a felt hat Jones copied from his painting at the National Portrait Gallery. The only person not represented by a Stephen Jones hat is Jones himself, who has chosen instead his grandfather’s top hat: “I have a rather strange head shape,” he explains, “and obviously it comes from him because it fits me perfectly.”
The exhibition, staged in partnership with Harvey Nichols and seven years in the making, spans a career of nearly four decades, from Jones’ early days partying with – and making hats for – Boy George at London’s legendary Blitz Club through his collaborations with designers including Dior, Giles Deacon and Comme des Garcons up to more recent creations for devoted fans such as Lady Gaga, who loved the huge, pink, feather-trimmed hat he made for her so much it was the only thing she chose to wear when she appeared on the cover of Vogue in 2012. “Of course, I didn’t know she was going to wear it naked but I suppose she had just worn the dress made of meat…”
Jones’ relationship with Brighton began many years previously, in his imagination. “I’m from the Wirral Peninsular, which is basically a sand dune in the middle of the Irish Sea and even on an August day it’s a force 10 gale and freezing. To me, Brighton was like the Riveria or Mustique or somewhere like that. In my imagination it was in the deep south, warm and welcoming, artistic and creative – all those things the Wirral Peninsula was not.” In 2012 he spent an extended period in the city researching Chinoiserie-on-Sea, a collection of hat designs inspired, in part, by the Pavilion.
Pieces from that collection are among upwards of 160 hats now on display in rooms throughout the seaside pleasure palace. “I’ve always loved the Pavilion,” he says. “Apart from all the crazy Chinoiserie – which has absolutely nothing to do with the real China – what I love is that it’s such a celebration of shape and colour. Everything it represents, all that extravagance and exuberance, I’m absolutely attracted to.”
Exhibiting in such opulent surroundings was a new experience for Jones, who is more used to showing his work on catwalks or in white-wall galleries including the V&A and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “If you’re showing hats in a gallery you have to create themes or chronology. If you’re showing hats in the Pavilion, well, you have to just go with it,” he laughs.
Image: The Mad Hatter 2013 and hat for Thom Browne AW14 in the Kitchen
All images © Tessa Hallmann/Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Royal Pavilion, until June 9