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Obsessed: Meet the Woman Who Travels Only for Hats

The beautiful display of haute haberdashery in the Mix department of our upcoming November/December 2015 issue came from the hat collection of mitrologist Stacey Miller. With the 900+ hats in her collection, Miller travels around curating museum exhibitions that show how hats are so much more than mere fashion accessories. We dug into the stories behind some of her top toppers.

Mitrologist—that’s not a commonly heard word. Can you explain a little about mitrology?

It’s actually a word that I invented. When people would ask about what I do, they would get a 10 minute explanation and so I decided to create a word for it. In a sense, I’m a hat anthropologist, so I combined one of the Latin words for hat, miter, with the greek word for the study of, ology. It refers to the study of the meaning of hats and what you can learn about the community and culture of the people who wear them. As Americans, we don’t really think much about hats other than as a fashion statement, but in other parts of the world, hats can be very meaningful.

How did you find yourself collecting hats?

I started out collecting hats as souvenirs in 1978. I was living in Spain and heard about a man who was looking for people to join him on a road trip from Spain to India in a van. I thought “Sure!” On that trip I bought my first hat in Istanbul, outside of a mosque. I thought it was a fun hobby and so for quite a number of years after that I bought hats when I traveled, especially when I saw people wearing a particular style of hat.

Tell me about the hat that started it all.

Nigerian beaded hat in the style of a British barrister's wig

It was a very simple white cotton skullcap with a little red embroidery that folded up into nothing (I didn’t have much room for souvenirs in my backpack) and probably cost me 25 cents. I bought it outside a mosque where a man was selling it to other men who needed it to enter the mosque.

How did you go from collecting hats to studying them?

It really started to change in the late 90’s when I left a corporate job. Someone heard about my hats and put me in touch with Smith Kramer Traveling Exhibitions, a company that creates museum exhibitions. I didn’t think anyone was going to be interested but they hired me to curate an exhibition that went to 15 cities from 2000-2005. My responsibility was trying to figure out the story I wanted to tell with the hats. I realized that I needed to go out and acquire more hats from different countries, but hats that told something similar across the different parts of the world. That’s when I started doing a lot of research and my collecting really started taking off.

And what is the story you tell with the hats?

I curate along lines of similarities. For example, many cultures have religious hats such as topi skullcaps, Amish hats, and Tibetan hats. Also, many cultures use hats to identify a person’s social position or wealth such, as the top hat, which was generally worn by well-to-do British gentleman. When cowrie shells were used as currency in Nigeria, cowrie shell hats worn by men from the Kuba tribe were a clear indicator of status and wealth. The bigger and more numerous the shells, the wealthier the person. Even these days, buying a fur hat proclaims a certain level of wealth.

Do you see a lot of cross-cultural influence?

Definitely. Bolivian bowlers, for example, were originally British mens hats. They were brought over in the early 20th century when the Europeans were building a railway through the Andes and adopted by the Quechuan women.

There is a hat from Nigeria that is made in the same shape as a British barristers wig and is covered in white beads and clearly evolved through connection with the UK. Until the 1920s, Nigeria was a British colony and, while the Nigerian version wasn’t worn by lawyers, it was worn by important men such as leaders or advocates in the community. There are a surprising number of hats that similarly cross political boundaries, leap across oceans and demonstrate how small the world is.

Dayak headhunters hat

Tell me about your favorite hat.

I have quite a few favorites. It’s hard to choose one because there is so much variety in designs and materials used. One of my favorites is from the jungles of Borneo that is worn by Dayak head hunters during ceremonies. It’s just such a beautiful design: a woven basket covered in cloth with a beaded design on the front in the shape of an anthropomorphic figure. In the back there are giant toothpick-like spikes and on top are little tufts of fur and black and white hornbill feathers.

I also love all the straw hats. They don’t sound as exciting as headhunter hats, but they are remarkable. I must have 125 and they are all made from the same type of material (reed, rattan, straw, bamboo) but are crafted into an endless number of designs. One of my favorites is the salakot hat from the Philippines. Most salakots have wide brims to protect from sun and rain and generally resemble pith helmets, but the insides are almost 3 dimensional—they are very much works of art.

Do you ever wear any of the hats from your collection?

I don’t wear most of them, but there are a handful that I will wear. There’s one in particular called a prestige hat from Cameroon. It’s crocheted out of cotton and is decorated with burls—sometimes they’re on the side, sometimes they cover the whole hat. I found one that fit my head and is wearable and notable but doesn’t get too much attention, so I do wear it.

What fascinates you most about hats?

Hats are important because they are a lens through which to view the world. They are a way to understand and appreciate other cultures, but they also reveal a lot about our own culture—think about a baseball cap that shows where a person is from, what sport he or she likes, or the school that person went to. Hats really expose our values, sensibilities, the things we protect ourselves from. What I really enjoy are the cultural connections and seeing the world through other people’s eyes.

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