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Alison in the archives. Handling hatpins in The Hatworks stores, October 2015

Alison in the archives. Handling hatpins in The Hat Works stores, October 2015

Sometimes academic life is not so bad: last Friday afternoon being a classic case in point.  The perfect end to a busy, and at times irksome, week came in the form of a welcome and energising archive visit to my ‘local’ treasure trove: the Hat Works museum, just around the corner from where I live in the leafy suburbs of Stockport.  I must say I have a great fondness for this particular museum, housed in a seven and a half storey mill building from the 1830s replete with 200 foot chimney.  Indeed, the site and setting is nothing short of awesome, cast in the shadow of a towering Victorian viaduct (which Google informs me is the largest brick-built structure in Western Europe).  And it is also able to boast the Plaza Super Cinema and Variety Theatre, a bedazzling 1930s art deco jewel-of-a-place, as a near neighbour, too.  Central Stockport, dear reader, is certainly worth a second glance.

As the name suggests, The Hat Works, is all about hats.  In fact, it’s about a lot more than hats and offers a social history of the City, its industrial past and the people who populated it.  The museum, its holdings and its excellent programme of outreach activities have been instrumental in bolstering my interest in hatting and millinery: interests both professional and personal.  Alongside my work-related research (and an instance, perhaps, of life imitating art?), hat-making has become a new hobby for me – an obsession, even – since taking several Hat Works’ classes on blocking, veiling and trimming (with, I hasten to add, varying creative results).

My most recent visit to the Hat Works took me to the off-site storage facility to meet with a couple of the brilliant and ever-inspiring Collections staff (Hannah, whose blog about life as a curatorial trainee is documented here, and Collections Access Officer, Bronwen).  We met to discuss plans for a forthcoming temporary exhibition (titled ‘Hats Amazing’, opening in late November 2015), which, thrillingly, I had been invited to contribute a small offering of content.  I’ve used the forthcoming exhibition as a springboard to develop my object-related work on hatpins and the fascinating social history that surrounds these seemingly inconsequential items.  To that end, I spent the afternoon photographing and recording over sixty assorted hatpins from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, as held in The Hat Works collection. One of my tasks was to measure the length of the objects as, intriguingly, the history of hatpins has a ‘dark side’.  Hat pins were a source of injury, both accidental and murderous.  Blades of twelve inches (and more) provided women with handy methods of self-defence on the perilous streets of nineteenth century cities. Hatpins were also used, on occasion, as offensive weapons, too (and were favoured as plot devices by crime fiction writers of the Conan Doyle oeuvre).   The following extract from a most curious and compelling lead article in The Chicago Sunday Tribune, dated 16th September 1900, hints at the richness – and significance – of hatpin history, showing how hatpins may open up avenues of historical import to do with women’s rights, domestic violence, urban street life and culture, gendered media reporting and the social and criminal justice of/for women.  The article includes a table of ‘things women used as weapons’, collated from a twelve-month period of Chicago police records.  Hatpins were recorded in 55 police incidents, behind ‘broom handles’, ‘table knives’, ‘stove-led lifters’, ‘rolling pins’ and ‘plates and dishes’.  The article elaborates thus:

Of the emergency weapons for the street, the hatpin leads by all odds.  It was used fifty-five times in the last year and no one will question its effectiveness in any emergency.  It is dramatic in its possibilities.  It is the American stiletto and it has the advantage over the Italian weapon in that it has not yet been classed with concealed weapons.  As an article of dress it is not well adapted to use.  It is destructive to hat and hair alike but its readiness as a weapon promises  to keep it in the dresser of every boudoir.  West Side police still talk of a hat pin duel between women  a few years ago, in which one of the contestants was stabbed deeply in the neck. Only a few weeks ago a young woman, named Mary Rilley, attacked Sergeant Timothy Cullinan with a hat pin as he stood at the desk of the East Chicago Avenue Station.  Only the prompt interference of a patrolman standing near saved him.  All of this goes to show that if women are not discriminating fighters at all times, they are at least versatile in their choice of weapons.

And so my ‘investigations’ continue…

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