An eye on hats in London

Shortly before noon on Wednesday, Julia and I rode the train into town so we could take in a few big city sights. Julia had made reservations for us to ride the enormous Ferris wheel called The London Eye that carries riders high above the river Thames to enjoy an incomparable view of the London skyline. It was built at the time of the year 2000 festivities and sits right in the middle of the city for added viewing pleasure.

The weather the night before had been ghastly: cold and rainy and gusty. We had worried that our view the next day might be miserable or even outright cancelled, but when we arrived that afternoon at the modern plaza that led to the Eye, the sun was shining, the sky was vivid blue and there was a profusion of puffy white clouds moving at breakneck speed across the sky.

We were moved efficiently and politely from one post to another on our journey to queue up for our car, one of the last stops being an inspection post where our handbags were to be examined. A nice German woman sporting an official looking security costume rummaged through the contents of my purse for a moment and then stopped to admire the fetching design on the outside of the bag. "I like zat! It's MES-MERH-I-ZEENG!" I reached over eagerly to demonstrate the bag's finest feature saying, "Why, that's not the half of it! Just see what else it can do!" I set the spiral disk to spinning in a hypnotic swirl and shortly thereafter the woman pushed it away forcefully with a sharp laugh, "Don't DO zat!" she cried "I've got a horr-uble hangover!" We all laughed a hearty laugh of recognition and since I understood her pain intimately, I brought the spinning disk to a screeching halt. I liked that gal. She had spunk and she made me laugh.
On to our last queue - this one much like a set of cattle chutes next to a loading dock. One by one, the pods move s-l-o-w-l-y past the loading area and guests are let gradually out of the chutes and herded into their designated glass bubble. It takes about as much concentration as getting on an escalator, but it's way more thrilling.

Our pod was loaded, doors secured (although seemingly a little insubstantial) and we were on our way in mere moments. In no time we were soaring high above the river with London stretching out as far as the eye could see in every direction. The familiar sights of the Big Ben tower and Parliament just across the river gave me that buzz that comes from realizing you're seeing the real thing instead of a ubiquitous reproduction. Big Ben is also a marvelous reference point when trying to get the lay of the land from that vantage point. To help make heads and tails of what you're seeing, each visitor to the Eye is given a fantastic fold out souvenir that diagrams points of interest in each of the four compass directions. Julia and I alternated between picking out as many places as we could and just silently marveling at the sheer mass of humanity and industry that surrounded us. Most of all, I secretly loved looking at the mechanism that supported and turned the little Eyes around and around. It was a marvel of rigging and structure with hydraulic dams as big as phone booths and state of the art pivot joints. Man, I'm such a geek.

We saw several remarkable buildings, one on the distant horizon that was almost a dead ringer for the Eiffel tower (we found out later it was an antenna) and a relatively new building that all the locals lovingly refer to as "the Gherkin". The Gherkin is a shiny rocket fuselage of a building with a jaunty curving stripe. I wasn't able to get a good picture myself, but I snagged the image seen here from Wikipedia so you can enjoy the whimsy of the Gherkin for yourself.

It took us about half a fascinating hour to complete our turn around the wheel, whereupon we were expelled unceremoniously into the colorful din and whirl of the streets of London. I just love that city! I think it's my favorite city in the world. As we crossed Waterloo bridge, it made me smile when I saw a group of Asian tourists taking turns posing for pictures so that it looked like they were leaning like giant Godzillas against the Big Ben clock tower. We wandered onto the tube and headed to our next destination, the Victoria and Albert museum.

There are so many wonderful things to see at the V & A, but we were there to see a special exhibition that had just opened on the history of hats. As we walked into the atrium of the museum and headed toward the reception desk, I was tickled to see an absolutely enormous chandelier hanging over the area that had quite obviously been fashioned by hot glass genius Dale Chiuhuly . A cheerful tangle of yellows and greens and blues, it was so wonderfully incongruous with its surroundings and it made me very happy.

After collecting our tour tickets, we decided some lunch would be a splendid idea, especially since the offerings in the cafe looked so delicious (they even had Limonata in the cooler, the sign of a truly fine dining establishment) - plus, we would be able to sit in the lavishly decorated dining hall to nibble our sandwiches. When we arrived with our trays, we found that there was only one empty table - one that had been branded a pariah by virtue of the asynchronous orbit it followed over the floor when set in motion by the merest touch. Ha! It wasn't anything we couldn't manage. As we made short work of our tasty Mediterranean heroes, we ogled the ornate gold trimmings and hand wrought ceramic cherubs and played the "what one luxury would you take with you to a desert island?" game while being regaled with the flourishes of Mozart concerto played on a grand piano by a kid young enough to have been a babysitting client of mine some years back. It was in this setting that we encountered the second inspired chandelier installation of the day. This room featured a set of huge orbs constructed of glowing white LEDs tangled into a tumbleweed of gleaming silver wire. They were so ludicrously at stylistic odds with the other furnishings of the Victorian salon, but they looked so exquisite there! The soft white light they generated cleverly mimicked the color and glow of real candlelight, setting the gold accents to gleaming warmly, much as they would have in Queen Vic's day.

After lunch we wandered around a short while and then headed to the hat exhibit to see what we could see. When we entered, I was pleased to see the hats were arranged in a style I've come to really appreciate - without regard to chronology, but rather centered around shared thematic elements. One of the cases, for example, was comprised entirely of top hats and bonnets. In one corner sat a wonderful modern bonnet that a fellow exhibition goer and I decided should be in a Tim Burton film of an Edward Gorey tale (the hat is called Kiss of Death -at right- and it's by Jo Gordon) and it was sitting mere inches from an intricately woven horse hair bonnet lavished with salmon grosgrain ribbon that Queen Victoria had worn as a young woman. Nearby, Prince Albert's dapper top hat presided above several other more modern and colorful examples of what has become an indisputable classic in the world of head coverings.

Julia and I moved from case to case, jostling for a place at the front of each where we could read the descriptive labels and marvel at some of the older examples of millinery - for example, a three horned 16th century jester's cap (just like you see in illustrations!) made of brown leather, trimmed with bells; or a wool felt apprentice's cap of the type you've seen in so many paintings from the middle ages - but this one being an incredibly well preserved specimen of the real thing! There were a great many fun hats in the exhibit by modern London milliner Stephen Jones as well as a huge case of celebrity head wear, some famous, some infamous. It was a member of the latter category that had me completely intrigued, before I even knew why.

As I worked my way toward the front of the crowd that was densely packed around the hats of celebrity, one hat in particular caught my eye, lodged somewhere between Marlene Dietrich's black sequined beret and Camilla Parker Bowles's spikey wedding headpiece of sharp olive green feather thingies. I couldn't put my finger on what it was that made it so familiar, but I was sure I knew it from somewhere. My eyes wandered up and down the staggered rows of notorious hats, but my attention kept coming back to that curious cream hat, over and over. When I finally reached the panel of labels at the front and read the identity of the mystery hat, I laughed aloud with final recognition: it was the ugliest hat in the world!
The first time I saw the ugliest hat in the world, I was a young girl and not very savvy in the ways of fashion. Still, even as a preteen, I had known that this hat was deplorable, enough so that it sticks in the mind clearly, like an accident or a tragedy. The hat I found myself staring at, slack jawed, there at the V & A, was in fact the hat worn by QEII at the ceremony to invest her son Charles with his own duchy. A hat so excruciatingly awful that almost everyone I've asked about it since my revelation has said, "Oh THAT hat!"
When I went looking for pictures of it for this post, I found that really, unbeknownst to me, an even greater atrocity had unfolded in 1969: there was a whole outfit! Apparently the damage couldn't be contained to the hat alone and it extended to cover an entire ensemble. I guess the only way to hide the fact that you've just conned one of the most famous heads of state in the world to put the ugliest hat on the planet on her head is to give her matching gloves, purse and a parasol, by gum! Lends that air of having the courage of your convictions. All Liz is missing are some big round dark glasses with cream colored frames to protect her from the sun glinting off the spaceship when it lands to pick her up.
. .
Julia and I laughed all the way back to her house about our fortune at getting to see the ugliest hat in the world. We scooted back to Greywell on the train that ran just before the rush hour commenced. The two of us stayed up well after Charles retired at a reasonable hour after dinner. I later retired at an unreasonable hour, but filled with good cheer from the enjoyment of a delightful day followed by a nice long intimate chat.

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