In Praise of Hats

I own twelve hats. That should answer any lingering questions you may have as to which type I am. In fact (I have just realized), I have more hats than pairs of shoes. This, despite the fact that like the actress Emma Ishta, “I have a tiny head, which means most hats don’t fit very well. I do love them, though.”

[ D ] Edgar Degas - At the Milliner III had thought there was no use loving them – until I turned 21, and had a costume party to celebrate. Since there will always be those who show up without costumes, I did a round of the second-hand shops, looking for random hats to inflict on them. And one of the hats I found actually fit me. It was a small fur pillbox hat – whether it’s real fur or not, I’m not sure. There might be some rather acrylicky beasts out there…

It was a historic moment, for it was not until the Caped Gooseberry’s grandmother passed away that I once more came into the possession of a fitting hat. (Granddaughter-in-law is not usually a direct line of inheritance, but hey, if the hat fits…) She was a many-hatted lady, and I became bounteously hatted as a result.

My favourite of the whole hat inheritance is a soft mossy-coloured winter hat, with a dashing little brim. “Some hats can only be worn if you’re willing to be jaunty, to set them at an angle and to walk beneath them with a spring in your stride as if you’re only a step away from dancing,” Neil Gaiman wrote in Anansi Boys. This is that kind of hat. I love it.

A customer tries on a new hat in the millinery department of Bourne and Hollingsworth on London's Oxford Street in 1942. D6596I also came in for a fine white straw (worn when she was introduced to Prince Charles) and a funky handmade multicoloured ‘safari hat.’ I do have some other hats that fit, but they’re made of wool, which stretches, and therefore doesn’t really count. One is knitted and the other is crocheted, and they were both gifts.

But I refuse to be hampered by the possession of a “tiny wee bonce,” as the last milliner I visited so charmingly expressed it. (No, she didn’t have anything that fit me.) I still own a number of hats that don’t fit – unless I wear a bandanna underneath.

There’s a wide-brimmed black felt; a cheap and nasty sunhat (the only one of my hats I bought new); a brown pageboy cap which gives the effect of a bonnet; an actual bonnet I made from a pattern in Jane Austen’s Sewing Box; and a jester cap (with bells, naturally) that the Caped Gooseberry and I made from instructions in The Hat Book.

JaneAustenCassandraWatercolourThe most recent acquisition, however, is a writing hat – a suggestion of Kerry Greenwood’s. “I have a writing hat. It is a tricorne made from an old felt hat I had as a student. It tells me that I am writing, when I am wearing that hat. When I stop writing, I take it off… The hat also tells anyone who drops in on me to go away.” My writing hat is from a second-hand shop (naturally!) and is something I’d never seen before: a wide-brimmed fur. I don’t know what kind of animals the hat used to be; at a guess I’d say rabbit and fox. It’s got a soft dark crown and underbrim, with a big puffy brim of light brown (with white guard-hairs). The brim keeps my neck warm at the back and keeps distractions out of view to the front and sides.

Fur is a contentious subject, I know, but I don’t see putting old furs in landfills as a good solution. I wouldn’t buy a new fur unless it was possum or rabbit (both environmental pests in New Zealand) or otherwise humanely farmed. I do, after all, wear sheepskin slippers (I’ve had the same pair for about fifteen years) and what is sheepskin but a sheep-fur? I draw the line at astrakhan, though – that’s just nasty.

Persian lamb; photo credit Matthias BeckerThe reason I have chosen to wear this only as a writing hat is, simply put, cowardice. I am nervous about what reaction I might get if I wore a flagrantly fur hat in public. Admittedly, the Internet is very much public, but no one can hurl paint on me over the world wide web. I don’t know why paint-hurlers don’t seem to target those wearing leather hats. Or leather bikie gear. The only difference is that one still has the hair on, and the other doesn’t.

There are undoubtedly evils and abuses in the international fur trade, but it seems to me that the answer to abuses is not to ban the products altogether (excepting endangered species, obviously). The solution is to educate people about the origins of what they’re buying, so they can make ethical choices. We don’t shame egg-eaters, we ban the use of battery cages – and in the meantime, encourage people to buy free-range. Ditto with diamonds and the Kimberly Process (although that does seem to have its issues).

Friedrich August Kaulbach Portrait of a young lady in a fur hatSo instead of flinging my warm and elegant hat into the compost bin, I will keep using it as a head-cosy until the chill of winter has passed for another year – at which point I will need to decide which will be the summer writing hat. Suggestions?

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Plus Cat

It seems to be a quirk of creative types to be accoutred with a cat – or several. Writers are particularly prone to cats – Ernest Hemingway’s collection of polydactyl cats being perhaps an extreme example – but the link is well-documented in both word and image, albeit not entirely understood.

Sorry about that deadline
“A catless writer is almost inconceivable,” says Barbara Holland. “It’s a perverse taste, really, since it would be easier to write with a herd of buffalo in the room than even one cat; they make nests in the notes and bite the end of the pen and walk on the typewriter keys.” But not all writing cats are so unhelpful. Kerry Greenwood says she has “a censorious cat called Belladonna who supervises the process and won’t let me write more than two hours without a break. She slyly hits the caps lock with her little black paw. Thus I am saved from carpal tunnel syndrome and she is well supplied with cat treats (those expensive green ones).”

It’s the same with knitters. As Stephanie Pearl-McPhee notes in her book At Knit’s End, “the tendency to be accompanied by a cat is an oddity among knitters that cannot be explained…. Most cats have a thing about knitting. They are honor sworn to pester knitters and be involved in knitting as much as possible. They lie on patterns, play with balls of yarn, bat at the end of a moving needle, and given two seconds of opportunity, will spread themselves all over your knitting, intentionally shedding as much fur as possible. When selecting a cat to share my life and knitting with, I will consider choosing one whose fur doesn’t contrast with my favorite color yarn.

Rudolf Hirth du Frênes - Young Friends 01
My cats know better than to play with an active ball of yarn (though you can see the temptation growing on them as they stare at it) but they do like to be in a lap that has knitting on it. The more mature of the two is happy to just sit alongside the knitting (she’s the one who’s a fibre snob), but the junior seems to think his life will not be complete until he has somehow climbed into the needle-portal and merged his dimensions with those of the knitting. I live in fear of ending up with a Klein-bottle-sock-cat (which isn’t a Dr. Seuss book, but should be).

Then there are sewing cats. Cats love sitting on rustly paper. Newspapers are better than books or magazines, and the delicate tissue of pattern paper is even better. Add the plethora of textures afforded by fabrics, and you have an irresistible cat-magnet. Leimoni Oakes, aka the Dreamstress, has a whole category of blog posts dedicated to the ‘assistance’ of her sewing-cat Felicity. The blog at Cation Designs has both a tag and a tab about the dedicated sewing-cat and model Walnut.

Jean Siméon Chardin - Still-Life with Cat and Rayfish - WGA04740
There are also cats who dwell with artists, no doubt taking every opportunity to filch food from still life compositions, leave little painty footprints about the premises, and bat shards of stone across the floor to where an unsuspecting foot will encounter them. (Cats are very thoughtful in that respect).
Doubtless there are many more examples of cats and their creatives, which simply don’t happen to have come to my notice (but please mention them in the comments).

Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, you can pretty much guarantee that your cat will climb into it. Knitting? Yes please. Sewing? Let me help you pin that down (with my claws). Reading? I’ll hold the book open for you (by lying on it). Hanging out the laundry? I’ll turn unintentional back-flips while trying to uproot the washing-line pole (since you won’t let me play with the pegs). Pruning? I’ll hide in the bush and dab at the secateurs as they come past. Playing pétanque? Let me lurk on the sidelines and dash madly into the path of the steel balls as you hurl them. Cooking? The floor will seethe with cats at every turn, especially if you’re cooking anything animal based (although one of our cats will eat bits of raw kale that have fallen on the floor – if she thinks you’re not looking).

you never put the cheese in the refrigerator, because you don't put your cat in the refrigerator
Why it is that cats do this is unclear. Boredom? It’s hard to bore an animal that is content to spend its days eating, sleeping and licking itself. Are they offering support? Are they offering – or seeking – companionship? Or do they merely wish to come between their person and anything that might look like it’s getting more attention than they are? Whatever the reason, it seems the attentions of a determined cat are inescapable, so we might as well accept them for the furry little joy-bringers they are, and do our best to get on with life despite their ‘help’.

O For a Muse of Fire – or Not

The last thing I need is a chamber-pot of burning coals dumped on my head every time I get a bright idea.

Jean Raoux - Vestal Carrying the Sacred Fire

There are two broad schools of thought when it comes to muses, which one might call the Pooh and Rabbit Schools. (See this quote post for the difference.) Which do you belong to? Do you wait for the muse to descend, or do you go out and hunt the fickle wench down?

Some creatives swear by the former (“I’m not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work” – Ray Bradbury) and some by the latter (“I don’t wait on the muse, I summon it at need” – Piers Anthony). Some just don’t believe in muses at all (the Eeyore School of Thought?).

Earlier this year I went to see Plum at the Court Theatre in Christchurch. P.G. Wodehouse’s muse appears as a dapper if dissolute young lady in waistcoat and trousers, and she is, as one would expect, as much fun as a barrelful of monkeys.

Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14627, Marlene Dietrich

Naturally, being a writer myself, I started to wonder whether I had a muse, and if so what she/he/it looked like. Of course, writing isn’t the only muse-related area. The Greeks had Muses for everything from history to dance to astronomy. Perhaps one could have a Muse of Housework, who frolics about the house with a frilly cap and feather duster, singing forbidden songs.

But what exactly are we talking about when we say “muse”? Someone who inspires us? An anthropomorphic representation of inspiration? Our own self or variant thereof when the creative juices start to flow? Well, judging by classical depictions, the only qualification for being a muse is an ability to look classy while leaning on something, wearing nothing but a sheet.

25.Euterpe auf Brunnenwand(1857)-Friedrich Ochs-Sanssouci-Mittlerer Lustgarten Steffen Heilfort
22.Brunnenwand mit Polyhymnia(1857)-Friedrich Ochs-Sanssouci-Mittlerer Lustgarten Steffen Heilfort
Palais Erzherzog Albrecht - Musensaal Muse
Plaque of Calliope, Muse of Heroic Poetry, Josiah Wedgwood and Sons and Thomas Bentley, 1768-1780, blue jasperware - Chazen Museum of Art - DSC01993

See what I mean? Anyone could do it! Sheet, piece of furniture – voila.

Not all muses are the lady-in-a-sheet sort, though. Kerry Greenwood (author of the Phryne Fisher mysteries, among others) says “If I ever saw my muse she would be an old woman with a tight bun and spectacles poking me in the middle of the back and growling, ‘Wake up and write the book!’” Like this, perhaps:

Senator Rebecca Felton 150010v

Stephen King seems to have a male muse, judging by this description: “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”

Man smoking a cigar

Definitely not as cute as Jubilare’s fuzzy little muse, despite the pointy teeth.

I like the idea of a chic waistcoated muse, or a savage little fluffy one, or even a plain old draped version. But having thought about it, I’m afraid my muse is kind of a cross between Hamlet and Cookie Monster.
“Words, words, words – om nom nom nom!”

Difficult to illustrate, particularly without running into copyright or trademark issues. Something googly-eyed and berserk with a mouthful of sentences and the occasional stray crumb of a letter dropping to its furry tum? With inky paws, I suspect.

What’s your muse? I’d love to hear!