Mad Hatting from the Museum of London

Historical Dresses on their way to the Derby

I was browsing the Museum of London collections looking for some interesting new references. I usually don’t use their website because the search functions are a little wonky and unrefined, but they have lots of unique items, especially from the 18th century and earlier, including the amazing Cheapside Horde. As I was browsing for dresses, I noticed something interesting about their displays. Many of their historical dresses are displayed with modern, avant garde hats!

Dress, circa 1743-50

Ensemble, circa 1841-45

Pelisse, circa 1823

It was quite a surprise to discover page after page of historical frocks with wild hats! Undoubtedly it was done as an artistic statement, perhaps to highlight how fashion-forward these garments were back in their era. Some of the hats and hairdos are actually quite impressive and compliment the outfit well despite their obvious modernity:

This is a close up of the hat and hair from the blue pelisse above. It’s actually quite pretty, even though it makes the outfit look much more Edwardian than Regency, especially from this angle.

Gown Ensemble, circa 1762-67
The classic giant ship wig updated for the modern siren!

Some of the hat pairings are better than others. Some can be a bit, well….overbearing:

Dress, circa 1801-10

Dress, 1820-24
“This is the last straw! I am never drinking at the Gaslamp Pub again!”

They must have been part of a specifically tailored exhibit, but I do not know which*. The juxtaposition brings up conflicting emotions: on the one hand, some of them look pretty nice and definitely draw your attention, stylistically setting them apart from other historical costume exhibits. I’d leap at the chance to wear a few of them with a nice 1950s frock to a day at the races! That said, they aren’t representative of the eras at all and can be terribly distracting–almost to the point of being maddening– giving little impression about how our ancestors really looked.

Gown, circa 1752-75

While I love mixing modern trends with historical elements (like in steampunk, gothic, and neo-rococo), when I go to a museum page, I’m looking for true historical depictions, not  imaginative artistic renderings. You can easily find creative re-imaginings of history in movies, art, cosplay, and magazines.
The hats are visually interesting and as part of a modern costume for a Halloween ball, they would be really fun! However, as representative images of a historical garment, they fall short, ultimately drawing attention away from the garment. In some instances, half the photos included with each file are actually just pictures of the mannequin styling rather than of the garment itself! Yes, the mannequins look really neat, but in this case, they tell us nothing more about the garment or era, which should be the main focus of a museum archive page. I’d much rather have extra pictures of stitch-work, decorative details, maybe even a rare glimpse of the interior construction.
All that being said, the Museum of London’s online collections are well worth a look. Most of these dresses, even with the many hat-centric pictures, have lots of clear photos from a variety of angles available on their pages. If you love  the bits and pieces from everyday English life throughout the ages, the online archives is an expansive buffet of delicious extant artifacts!

* (edit: the exhibit centers on the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The hats were designed for the exhibit by couture British milliner Philip Treacy)

5 thoughts on “Mad Hatting from the Museum of London

  1. Hello! I work at the MoL, so I thought I’d chip my knowledge in. These outfits are all part of their “Pleasure Gardens” display, which is meant to recreate the excitement and spirit of the visitors to the Vauxhall Gardens in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The women’s hats are all by Philip Treacy!

    1. Thanks for identifying the exhibit, Jenny! I extrapolated that they were for a special event since a couple of the other dresses in the collections didn’t have hats, too. A note about the styling and artist in the artifact descriptions would be awesome! I think it would also help clear up the confusion the hats may cause.

  2. When I visited the Museum Of London (I stayed a few blocks away) I LOVED this exhibit and wish I would have had more time to stay and soak it all in! (Although I wish there has been more of an explanation of the exhibit!)

  3. Yeah, they have a little booklet before you go in that you can read, but because of the low light levels in there there’s not much point having written notices within the cases themselves. I agree that they should be more clear that the hats are modern and why that’s the case (I suspect a lack of display-worthy hats in the collection is a large part of the reason).

  4. I love your article. It´s true, I like the hats, but they should not be presented like this on the museum´s website that serves as a resource of information for people interested in historical fashion.

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