Making Hats for “In the Next Room”

by Rachel Pollock, Crafts Artisan

We’re working on a really fun set of hats for the next show at work, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). The script is set in the 1880s, which means some great bustle costumes and of course hats!

The action of the play takes place over a couple of months, and the character for whom I’ve got the most craftwork is Mrs. Daldry, who undergoes a process of self-discovery. Our costume designer, Anne Kennedy, came up with a great way of expressing this through Mrs. Daldry’s hat. Riffing off the idea that women would have a favorite hat retrimmed in whatever the new fashion was, Mrs. Daldry is to appear in each scene with the same basic hat style, but trimmed ever more frivolously and exuberantly. Fun!

We initially discussed whether this would be a single hat with interchangeable decor “appliances” that the wardrobe crew would change out between scenes, but I decided instead to do four identical hats trimmed differently, to instead create the illusion of the same hat being retrimmed.

Not the right period, but a great illustration of how the basic hat shape itself is only part of the final look!
Same face, same dress, same hat base, but such different personalities!

There were several reasons for this decision, most of which had to do with making the wardrobe crew’s job easier. PlayMakers is a professional regional theatre, but we reside on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and as such everyone on the theatre’s staff is essentially doing double duty as artists and as teachers in practicum–UNC’s students in the department of dramatic art have the invaluable opportunity to work alongside us to produce PlayMakers’ shows, and among those opportunities is in a wardrobe crew capacity. Our Wardrobe Supervisor, Whitney Vaughan, leads a team of undergraduates who (for class credit) learn the ins and outs of backstage costume support for the run of each show.

I figured, our crew is already going to be learning SO much new information and unusual costume rigging (like how to help actresses put on corsetry and bustle cages and wigs and hats), that to keep the hats as straightforward as possible would only be a help. It is much easier to keep track of four separate hats backstage in the dark than to keep track of four batches of fiddly hat trim that snap or hook on and off of a piece. It’s easy to accidentally drop or crush a feather spray attached to a pouf of fabric, but a hat is a more tangible item less easily damaged or lost. And, if the basic hat style was one we could block in felt, making multiples is actually (for me) less work, all told, than retrimming the same single hat four ways and then troubleshooting how to stabilize each “edition” into single quickly-removable units.

Ms. Kennedy sent us a large research packet of historical images showing hat styles she liked for the character of Mrs. Daldry. Then, I looked into options of block shapes for brim and crown styles, among blocks we own or could makeshift.

Research example of the “flowerpot” hat crown shape Ms. Kennedy wanted.
No joke, they don’t call that shape a flowerpot for nothing!

$3 terra cotta flowerpot of the proper scale, getting sealed with polyurethane.

First i blocked an old hat crown onto it, to look at with our desired brim block.
(Read about how I made this brim block from esparterie here.)

First stab at blocking the first crown on the flowerpot…

It worked! Look what a cute conic-section crown it produced!

My assistant, first year grad Leah Pelz, blocked the remaining three hats.
Here they are in various stages of processing.

I’ll stop there for now, because we’re about to start tech on the show, but a second post is yet to come to show you the four different means of trimming these hats out!