Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Chill Pill(box)

The pillbox hat has been around for a long time, and has been worn by everyone from organ grinder's monkeys to Canadian police. It gained new life, however, in 1961, when a fashion conspiracy too shape.

Jackie Kennedy wanted a style all her own as she took over the role of first lady. Oleg Cassini had been a friend of the Kennedy's for years, and he signed on for the monumental task of First Stylist, with one caveat: that he be the only one to supply her clothing. Jackie was concerned about this, as this meant that he not only had to create clothing for each event, but also coats, gloves, hats, handbags and shoes. Mr. Cassini assured her that he was up to the task, and a partnership was born.

How would one person do all this without losing his mind? First of all: outsource. Jackie's hats were all created by Marita, at Bergdorf Goodman's, which took the actual construction work away from Cassini's house. Next, the style. He decided that what Mrs Kennedy needed was a "non-hat:" a style that would set off the beautiful face of the president's wife, instead of focusing on the hat itself. A correctly styled hat should be an afterthought, he said. It is an accent, not a focal point, which is exactly what the pillbox style is. Add to it that the simplicity of the style meant that it could be made up by Bergdorf Goodman's without a national summit of what the hat would look like.

Look at what a properly worn pillbox hat looks like:

She looks radiant, does she not? Note that her face is the focus, and how the hat frames her face - almost like a halo. Perfect.

A couple of other well-done pillboxes:

Audrey Hepburn in "Charade," in 1963.

An almost pillbox, worn by Grace Kelly in Rear Window, 1954. The veil makes a nice accent, but is definitely more a focal point than a plain pillbox.

Carla Bruni, the French president's wife, and Queen Elizabeth II. Whose face are you looking at?

I doubt seriously that there is anyone who will look at a pillbox hat perched on the back of a woman's head and not be reminded of Jackie Kennedy, so the fashion conspiracy worked. Jackie took a simple style, made it all her own, and created fashion history in the meantime. And that is something that just doesn't happen every day.


  1. I loved Carla Bruni's look when she visited the Queen-very proper, but very update-not dowty.
    And I love Audrey's leopard hat with the red coat-two of my favorite combinations!

  2. I'm afraid my impression of Carla Bruni's hat at the time was that it was a "OMG - I've got to wear a hat!" And someone ran this little pancake thing up on the sewing machine for her. IMO, to even include it in the same breath as Jackie Kennedy's or Audrey Hepburn's hats (which were obviously real properly blocked and constructed hats) is a mistake, I think. People looked at Carla Bruni because she is young and extremely attractive; Queen Elizabeth is an elderly woman who is head of state who has a certain fixed style which includes highly constructed hats (as did her mother, whose hats never varied: off the face, upturned brim on one side). A pillbox, per se, does not provide all the functions of a hat. Because it does not have a brim, it cannot provide any sort of protection or shade. So, from that standpoint, it's utility has certain limits. However, for women who are not used to wearing hats or who do not have a lot of experience in choosing hats for themselves (and hence don't know their best shape, best brim size, etc.), they are a way to have a punctuating point in an outfit which in general will be attractive.