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Crown jewels on display

Stephen Jones is curating the “Hats: An Anthology” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Stephen Jones is curating the “Hats: An Anthology” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum. justinephotography.com

Milliner-to-the-stars Stephen Jones picks up his cup of tea at the Mandarin Oriental, takes a sip, and ponders the question lingering before him: Why is his show, “Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones,” going to the Peabody
Essex Museum?

“You mean what’s a nice guy like me doing in Salem?” Jones retorts with a devilish smile. “Well, they asked me to go, and I’m told that they have an interesting history of pointy black hats there. I found the thought of it irresistible.”

Jones, hat maker to everyone from the late Princess Diana to pop royalty Madonna, is curating the retrospective of hats at the Peabody Essex, which begins Saturday. It not only includes wildly imaginative hats that Jones created since launching his London shop in 1980, but more than 250 hats from the past 900 years.

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“Hats” originally ran at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2009 and is a collection of pieces drawn from the V&A’s archive of nearly 5,000 hats, plus several hats on loan from private collections. There is an emphasis on celebrity, along with many of Jones’s own haute couture collaborations with designers such as Jean Paul Gautier. But for Jones, hats are about more than celebrity. They offer insight into the owner, a peek at inner fantasies. They give adults a rare opportunity to play dress-up.

“Hats are these fantastically emotive things,” he says as a tray of Maine lobster rolls, crab cakes, and chicken salad sandwiches arrives for the first course of high tea.

He grabs a crab cake, smiles, and adds “Plus, they’re just fun.”

Much like Jones, “Hats: An Anthology” is playful. You can see Jones’s humor not only in his own fanciful creations — he did design for the Spice Girls movie “Spice World” after all — but also in his curatorial choices. Kristen Woodward’s “Sex on the Brain” hat from 1989 sports two mummies cavorting in a lascivious manner on top of a French vanilla colored hat. Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1938 surrealist shoe hat, a collaboration with Salvador Dalí, is an inverted high heel turned into haute couture headgear. Jo Gordon’s 1994 “Kiss of Death” hat looks like an outtake from “The Birds” with an Alfred Hitchcock-trained murder of crows enrobing Tippi Hedren.

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The exhibition shows the life cycle of the hat, beginning with the designers. There are fascinators created by noted designers like Philip Treacy (he of Princess Beatrice’s famous Royal Wedding octopus headpiece). The cycle continues with noted patrons of hats and hatmakers, including the late Isabella Blow and Ava Gardner.

“Some of the hats are pure statement of form or line or color,” says Lynda Hartigan, chief curator at the Peabody Essex. “Some of the hats remind me of paintings and sculpture. It’s a healthy reminder — at least for me — that I don’t really feel the need to draw such careful distinctions, as many people do, between what is a painting and what is a sculpture.”

In recent years, the Peabody Essex has found success by ignoring those distinctions. Its 2009 show of Iris Apfel’s extensive wardrobe, “Rare Bird of Fashion,” ranks in the museum’s top 10 most popular shows. Earlier this year, the 91-year-old Apfel announced that she would donate a significant portion of her historically significant wardrobe to the museum. That success prompted PEM to stage another fashion-oriented exhibition.

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Jones grew up with an interest in art and fashion, and studied to be a milliner, but his big break came when he appeared in the Culture Club video “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in 1982. Gautier saw Jones in the video and was so inspired by his 1950s-meets-Morocco look that he designed his debut menswear collection around it.

Jones quickly became the milliner of choice for Britain’s 1980s New Romantic movement. He made hats for his friend Boy George, along with bands Spandau Ballet and Wham!, which eventually led to larger commissions from royals and superstars such as Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand. He has also made hats for a number of films, including ones for Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil in “101 Dalmatians” to Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in “Coco Before Chanel.”

He learned that his love of hats is not necessarily shared by the museum world. As he began to assemble the show with Oriole Cullen, the Victoria & Albert’s curator of modern textiles and fashion, Jones found specific historic hats can be hard to come by.

“Hats are very much the runt of the litter in the museum world,” he says. “Everybody comes in to donate a fabulous Dior ballgown or Chanel suit. Museums will take all these pieces, and then toss aside a brown felt hat that comes along with it. No one is interested in it except for me.”

This led him to start traveling to other museums around the globe and consulting with private collectors, such as Vogue editor Hamish Bowles, to fill the gaps. And yet, in some cases, Jones was unable to fulfill his wish list. Sadly, Aretha Franklin’s inauguration day hat was off limits.

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As a decadent tray of pastry arrives for the second course of high tea, Jones explains that, for him, designing hats is still just as challenging as it was when he opened his shop 22 years ago.

“If you want an easy life,” he says, “don’t become a milliner.” Sometimes, he still finds himself pondering the design of a hat for weeks. Other times he can sketch the perfect hat in 20 seconds.

“You never learn how to do it,” he says. “Every time is like the first time. That’s the thing about fashion. It only lasts a few months, and then you have to start over again. Last season I was working with Marc Jacobs. I was making prototype after prototype, and he’d say ‘No Stephen, I don’t like it.’”

An important part of his job is reassuring his clients and instilling confidence in them to wear a hat, but his biggest responsibility is to create beautiful hats that his clients will keep for years.

“Woman may throw their clothes away after a few seasons,” he says. “But they don’t throw their hats away. That’s how special they are. They can be like a security blanket, and I want to create a security blanket that they’ll always feel good about.”

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Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.