A hat with pithy nuance

Critical tweets and hashtags quickly filled social media this past Friday when Melania Trump wore a pith helmet for a Safari tour in Kenya. The New York Times quoted Kim Yi Donne, a political-science professor who specializes in African politics at the University of California, “When people think of Africa, they have these standard narratives. Her attire is a signal of her understanding of what Africa is in 2018. It’s tired and its old and it’s inaccurate.”

Many feel the pith helmet is a symbol of European colonialism, but it wasn’t created as a means of expressing authority or repression, only as a way for Europeans to survive equatorial heat and tropical humidity. If the pith helmet is a symbol of hot climate imperialism, then a similar argument could be made for parkas and pack boots in former cold climate colonies.

The pith used in the helmet’s construction was acquired from the spongey core of the stem of the shola plant that grows abundantly in marshy areas of East India (West Bengal). The light-weight pith, which absorbs moisture and can be easily carved, was traditionally used for creating Bengali wedding headgear.

Sometime during the 1820s to 1840s, sun helmets (known as shola topee in Hindi) began to be made by Indians for Europeans who found their straw hats became sticky and limp in the high humidity and heat of the tropical Indian climate. Pith sun hats retained their shape while the hygroscopic qualities of the pith wicked sweat away from the head.

1858 design for pith helmet

In the 1850s the British army were still wearing shakos – a tall Napoleonic era hat style that survives today as part of the marching band uniform. To replace the shako, the pith helmet was adapted for military use. The helmet, which was covered in cotton, had a high crown to  prevent sweat buildup, and added ventilation holes on the side and top for air circulation. The helmets could be soaked in water so that on a hot day, the head was cooled as the water evaporated. A wide, sloping brim to keep sun and rain off the wearer’s face and neck also provided a place to fasten a leather or metal chin strap when not in use.

Soldiers in the Middle East quickly learned they were targets in their bright white helmets, so they dyed the cotton coverings with tea and dirtied them with ‘khak’ the Persian word for dirt from which we get the word khaki.

By the late 1860s, the military were making their helmets from cork or metal instead of pith. The Northwest Mounted Police in Canada even adopted the style in the 1870s (pictured right). A British style was standardized and became known as the Wolseley helmet in 1899, named after, but not designed by, Sir Garnet Wolseley. This modified version, had an apex at the front and back and is still worn by many regiments including the Queen’s Life Guards.

By the late 19thcentury, the genderless civilian style of pith helmet had a rounder shape and flatter top and was known as a ‘Bombay bowler’. Made in India for export, the hats were mostly worn by colonials, expats, missionaries and travellers around the equatorial world: Caribbean islands, The Amazon, Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

U.S. postal service helmet

The pith helmet style became a prototype for soldier’s ‘tin hats’ during World War I, workmen’s hard hats, and polo helmets, which in turn influenced the design of today’s bicycle helmets. The U.S. post office even adopted pith helmet styles for mail carriers that are part of the current uniform.

Dressed for Safari, c. 1930

Pith helmets fell from general use for two reasons. Firstly, as colonies gained independence after World War II, indigenous denizens wore their own traditional styles of headwear that predated the use of pith helmets: turbans, thobes, fezzes, kufis… Although, many of the newly independent countries retained pith helmets for their military and police uniforms. Secondly, travel changed in the postwar world. Extended holidays that began with long ocean voyages to exotic tropical locales were displaced by jetting off for short trips to air conditioned resorts.

The pith helmet is still being made and worn. One current manufacturer in Pakistan has been making them since 1928. This is a style that was not appropriated from any indigenous culture. It was gender non-specific, and was the result of scientific design to aid air movement, moisture wicking, and sun protection. It was not produced by slave labour, and it was never restricted to or from anyone who wanted to wear one. The style’s association with colonialism is superficial – based on it being originally made for and worn by primarily white people who did not have suitable headwear from their own wardrobes to wear in hot and humid climates.

Message in a Battle

Probably this year’s biggest fashion faux pas (akin to Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl pasties incident of 2004) just hit the fan two days ago. On her way to meet migrant Mexican children separated from their parents at the Texas border, Melania Trump wore a $39 (U.S.) jacket from Zara with a graffiti scrawl across the back that proclaimed “I really don’t care, do u?”

2017: Dolce & Gabbana jacket $51,500 U.S.

The mind boggles as to why any First Lady – especially this one, who is a former model and known for her expensive designer tastes should pick a cheap, foreign made jacket with a smarmy quip. The aghast reaction to the crass coat was swift, and attempts to spin the issue by the Whitehouse were clumsy. POTUS tweeted that it was Melania’s attempt to show her disdain for the media. I don’t buy it. I also don’t buy FLOTUS handler Stephanie Grisham’s story that it was ‘just a jacket’ and meant nothing. Grisham’s attempt to shame the media into their coverage of the coat story insulted the media’s ability to cover both the coat and the children’s separation story (it is possible to chew gum and walk at the same time.)

Now the question being asked is whether the coat was a stupid or evil choice – because there is no good answer. The chic-storm hit the fan even before Melania had landed back in Maryland where she donned the coat AGAIN in muggy Washington weather (a jacket was not needed) – so she clearly wanted the coat’s message to be seen. Melania is not someone who throws on clothes without thought – she is always impeccably attired to the point of being over-dressed. Her towering high heels on a trip to see Hurricane Harvey’s devastation was a poor choice, as was the $1000 (U.S.) designer plaid shirt to garden in, but this coat breaks new ground, because it was on purpose.

Does the coat’s message mean that she doesn’t care about the families being ripped apart by her husband – or perhaps it means that she doesn’t care about her husband? Whatever explanation, Melania doesn’t deserve a pass on this fashion faux pas because the best answer is that it was a stupid choice.

In response, American journalist Parker Molloy purchased the domain IReallyDoCare.com where people can donate to charities helping immigrants, and the brand Wildfang quickly launched their version of the coat with the slogan “I really care, don’t you?” All proceeds are going to refugee and immigrant support in Texas.

So maybe more good than harm will come out of this in the end.

Cartoon reactions to Melania’s jacket

Fashion Faux Pas — Inappropriate Appropriation by Raf Simons of Calvin Klein

The Debrief recently uncovered a rip-off look at New York’s SS 2018 fashion week. A zippered cape-jacket with a drawstring waist ‘designed’ by Raf Simons for Calvin Klein looked remarkably like a line for line reproduction of Bonnie Cashin’s Body Container jacket that the late Cashin had designed for Saks Fifth Avenue in 1976.

Stephanie Lake, Cashin’s former protege and heir to the Cashin archive (and author of the recently published book about Cashin), reposted The Debrief’s comparison images and included a copy of the original design notes, saying “One of the very first things Bonnie told me, the first day we met, was “I did everything for a reason”.” Lake continues “Of the color, she described it as “bright, visible, and unafraid.” It was her answer to contemporary safety concerns, specifically thinking about riding a bike / skating around NYC, and also in terms of having large pockets in lieu of a purse. High crime rates at the time!”

Added September 21:

Bonnie Cashin Archivist Takes Issue With Designer Copies

Fashion Faux Pas – Jeans into dresses

Cute idea or fashion disaster? A pair of high-waisted jeans turned upside down and contoured to fit the figure may look like a cute idea in this c. 1980 fashion illustration, but even with the fly undone, it is going to make walking difficult with that tight opening.

When the idea was revived in 2017, two pairs of oversized men’s jeans were used instead of the one pair of high waisted mom jeans – solving the hobbled hemline issue, but is it pretty?


WTF — What the Fashion?

We aren’t even half way through 2017 and some of the worst fashions have descended upon us this year. On the good side, these fashion disasters are the only news stories that can even begin to compete with the Trump presidency:

“She’s a Goddess”. I am not a blindly supportive fan of Rei Kawakubo – the designer being honoured by the Met this year. She is an artist and pushes the boundaries of what is fashion, but she has a lot of bad ideas amongst the good – no designer can hit a home run every time. However, she also opens the door to less talented designers who think its cool to be irreverent and that ugly is the new black. Throwing paint at a canvas doesn’t make you an artist – you have to know what you are doing.

The effeminization of male attire. I can see there is a sartorial renaissance underway, but every time this happens and men start wearing pocket squares and colours other than navy blue, stupid stuff happens too. The last time this occurred was in the late 1960s-early 1970s with the peacock revolution — colourful print shirts and velvet jackets were great, but mini skirts and his & her velour jumpsuits sucked. This time it’s onesies and lacey shorts that are going to take the progressive men’s fashion movement down…

Poverty Chic. It’s actually offensive to see dirty clothes being sold as chic attire. What’s worse is that these aren’t being sold ironically, as a political statement about the declining standard of living, or with a cause – with a portion of all sales going to clothe the needy. These are overpriced brand new jeans being worn by trust fund millenials and dot com X-genrs to show how rich they are – like the French aristocracy of the 18th century that decorated their wigs with marzipan fruits and cakes during a famine.

Honourable mentions include: over-designed athleisure, camo-anything (that is so 5 years ago), attempts to restart a jean generation with novel ideas…, and anything Ivanka.

Fashion Faux Pas – Leggings

I’m weighing in on the prudish site – leggings are not pants – they are footless tights and inappropriate for wearing outside in daylight unless the crotch and buttocks are covered by a top. 550 years ago, it was men who were wearing tight-fitting legging-like garments that did little to cover their assets. It was hard not to look when the tunic didn’t cover the buttocks or bulge. An English law enacted in 1463 asserted short tunics that revealed the male buttocks could be worn only by the upper classes. At first this appears to be elitist, but it is also a passive-aggressive way to use peasants, who have no power to push back, as a way to set a standard of decorum.

These are not pants.

Skip forward 550 years, and United Airlines bans two teenaged girls from boarding a Minneapolis-bound flight last week for wearing leggings, citing a company dress code that bans form-fitting Lycra tops, dresses or pants, mini-skirts or shorts shorter than 3 inches above the knee when in a standing position, any clothing that is considered provocative by being see-through or revealing the midriff or undergarments, any attire that is designated as sleepwear, underwear or swimwear, anything that has offensive graphics or is excessively dirty or worn, and flip flops or bare feet. Other major airlines have similar guidelines. American Airlines doesn’t allow workout clothes or beach attire which includes leggings and shorts, and Delta defines customers can’t wear clothing that is “excessively dirty, vulgar” or “violates public decency laws and community standards.”

We used to call these nude pantyhose…

I don’t have a problem with most of these rules, although the 3 inches above the knee rule is a bit archaic sounding. The problem is not so much the rules as much as their erratic interpretation by control-freak peons. A dress code has to be logical, clearly stated, and enforced, not brought up on a whim referencing rules you aren’t aware of or can not rationally interpret. Otherwise you get instances like the two visitors to Butchart Gardens last spring who were turned away for wearing Victorian-inspired garb. The broken rule Butchart Gardens cited was that their ‘costumes’ could confuse visitors who might mistake them for park uniforms, but the two visitors were then offered park uniforms to wear instead of what they had on… If the visitors had been Amish, would the same kerfuffle ensued?

Nothing to say

United Airlines tried to get around the flak about their legging rule by saying it was a dress code required of pass travellers (friends and family of United Airline employees.) Jonathan Guerin, spokesman for United said “The passengers this morning were United pass riders and not in compliance with our dress code for company benefit travel. We regularly remind our employees that when they place a family member or friend on a flight for free as a standby passenger, they need to follow our dress code. To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome.” In other words, because United is paying all or part of their ticket, they have the power to say what you can or cannot wear – some call this the power of Capitalism – ‘My company, my rules’. Sounds a lot like the powerless peasants from 1463 with no recourse but to do as they were told as an example for all to follow. I feel that either leggings are or are not offensive and nobody on the plane will guess who is a pass traveler or a full-paying customer by their clothes, unless they are wearing a United Airlines uniform.

Women knew how to wear leggings in the 80s – with a LONG top – I am not offended by this outfit – it even looks like a great outfit for travelling by plane.

Worn modestly (with crotch and buttocks covered), leggings are not a bad choice for air travel. A security pat down should be unnecessary (you can’t even hide cellulite in those things), and they are apparently comfortable, which in these days of shrinking leg room and no walking about during flights allowed, unless you are heading for the bathroom, makes the trip less confining. The big problem is who decides what is and what isn’t offensive and what power do they have to embarrass, harass, and otherwise ruin someone’s trip. I personally found the recent video of a boy wearing a T-shirt and shorts being repeatedly frisked extremely offensive. This really isn’t about the rules, its about the abuse of power by little Napoleons and we are seeing more of it happening all the time.

Fashion Faux Pas – 2002

Fashion reached a new low 15 years ago when there was a hooker chic look consisting of overly tight everything with overly pointy-toed boots, laced up tops, low rise bell bottom jeans and micro minis or hot pants that looked like wide belts. Added to this was a dash of ripped up punk and a heap of boho hippy fringe with frosted, fried, hair and asymmetrical hems. Don’t forget to pile on some velour sweats and wear  underwear as outwear… Let us pray to the fashion gods 2002 is NEVER REVIVED.

Why we wear clothes?

I don’t normally comment on who wore what at events anymore because I don’t want to judge others, but after seeing some of the Grammy outfits this year I have to wonder what has happened to good taste.

Clothes are a great way to look better – to accentuate the good parts and hide the bad bits. Clothes also help to empower, entice and protect – they communicate who we are and who we want to be. There was a lot of flack over Lady Gaga’s tiny muffin top at the Super Bowl Halftime show – not really worth even mentioning, although I wonder why she didn’t wear something cut a smidgen higher to begin with – that is what clothes are for. So I have to wonder what these people were thinking when they put on their outfits…

Costume ball?:

Oh alright.. I’ll go, but I’m wearing something comfortable:

It worked then, so I am going to wear it again:

I think I have seen this before:

I have a ton of money and no taste:

What occasion is this for again?:

Wit Knits

I am stealing these images from Messy Nessy Chic because they are too good not to! These illustrations come from a 1986 English knitting book entitled Wit Knits – and modelled by British celebrities (at the time) including Joanna Lumley: