Artist exhibiting 100 historic hats

Sylvia Wagner has loved hats all her life.
Now, she’s combining that passion with her artistic talents by putting them together for the newest exhibit at the Fort Frances Museum, “Head Travel: 100 Years, 100 Hats—From Bonnet to Baseball Cap.”
The Thunder Bay artist’s exhibit, which will run at the museum until the end of the year, features 100 examples of hats spanning styles from 1900 to 2000.
“I’ve always been interested in hats,” Wagner said Friday as she was setting up her exhibit. “I’ve worn them all my life, even if some of them might seem out-of-date or old-fashioned to some people—I love them.
“They’ve always been fun,” she added. “Of course, in the past they were worn as more of a status symbol. Nowadays, people still wear them, but mostly it’s to keep you warm in the winter and keep the sun off your face in the summer.
“It’s interesting to see how styles have changed,” noted Wagner, adding that with so many examples to choose from in her collection, she’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite.
Wagner also noted it once was thought that what was worn on one’s head was an indication of the kind of personality hidden by the covering—whether that person was serious or flighty; rebellious or conservative.
They would communicate something to others as to who one was as an individual.
“It’s fun to wear a hat. It’s like playing a character. You can be anything you want to be,” Wagner remarked, adding that with hats falling out of vogue in the 21st century, “we have lost an opportunity to add richness to our personal presentation.”
As such, Wagner said her exhibit is as much about the historical presentation of hats and fashion trends as it is about shifts in societal attitudes.
For instance, she pointed out that in Western society, the hat was considered an essential part of one’s public costume for centuries. But this all took a downturn after World War II when “women workers relished their newfound freedom and independence.”
“Hats seemed to be an unnecessary encumbrance, as well as suggesting attitudes of femininity that were already beginning to seem outdated and no longer appropriate to modern life,” Wagner explained.
As a result, the hat became an “optional extra”—suitable only for the stiff formality associated with the middle-aged and elderly, she added.
“Once relegated to this domain by the youthful, vigorous girl-woman, it was a steep path downward to the position it now holds in today’s society,” said Wagner.
Wagner said most of the hats in her collection she’s tracked down herself over her lifetime, with some being generous gifts from people she’s known who were well-aware of her passion.
While many are authentic vintage hats, Wagner noted she’s made some herself when she was unable to track down certain hats from specific eras.
She encourages input from those who come to see her exhibit, and has a comment book left out for people to write in.
She’s looking for any information people may have on hats they see in her exhibit, such as whether anyone remembers buying a similar hat years ago, and when and where they may have got it.
In particular, Wagner doesn’t have much information on her hats from the 1940s. That’s because she gleans much of her information regarding her hats from old catalogues—and very few such catalogues were printed during World War II.
Although she has no shortage of hats by any means, and she’s not looking for people to donate hats to her collection, Wagner won’t necessarily turn away anybody if they’d like to give her a particularly interesting one.
The Fort Frances Museum is the first place to host Wagner’s “Head Travel: 100 Years, 100 Hats” exhibit, which she hopes to show in places such as Atikokan and Thunder Bay in the New Year.
Wagner has received support to stage her exhibit from the Ontario Arts Council, the Canadiana Costume Archives, and the Museum of British Columbia.