As next month’s opening of “China: Through the Looking Glass” at The Costume Institute nears, milliner Stephen Jones has been hunkered down in the Metropolitan Museum of Art perfecting 120-plus head pieces.
Seated in a makeshift workshop Friday surrounded by creations in various stages of completion, the Londoner understandably had already lost track of how long he had been in New York. “I arrived Monday, [no] Tuesday night. It’s funny, because working in a museum you have no idea what time it is – or whether it’s night or day. You seem to be working all the time.” he said.
Jones is part of curator Andrew Bolton’s dream team, which includes filmmaker Wong Kar Wai and production designer Nathan Crowley. While the fact that the show’s footprint will be two and a half times larger than any the Costume Institute has ever staged may be daunting, its scale has heightened the creativity. “I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s wonderful that Andrew sort of trusts me – 90 percent, which is fairly good going, I think, in this life,” Jones said with a laugh. “It’s amazing to have the creative freedom that he has given me and to just really go for it. So often people are always editing whatever creative people do. But he’s always saying, ‘Go the extra step.’”
For The Met, he has crafted 120-plus headpieces (though “the curation isn’t exactly fixed, so that number is going up-and-down,” he said). Tasked with creating hats that will be showcased in three different areas of the museum, Jones has reinterpreted late 19th century Chinese hairstyles, coolie hats, 19th century court headdresses, Communist China-starred caps, 12 Imperial Symbols and a headpiece made of a broken pile of china. For the multimedia, mirrored Anna Wintour Costume Center, Jones’ designs will be a transparent gold, “the same shade of the mannequins so that they become one, creating a contrast against the outfit they are showing.” Hats that appear to be made of strips of gold film are actually Lucite that is cut, then laser cut, and lacquered by the same team that lacquers sculptor Anish Kapoor’s art.
Trying on a bulbous ceramic piece, Jones said, “So this is a ginger jar that fits on the back of you head, like a Sixties hairdo.”
After speaking with Bolton about the prospect a year ago, Jones said he was so fascinated with the subject that he went ahead researching and reading books about Chinese clothes, the chinoiserie-heavy Royal Pavilion in Brighton and chinoiserie in Europe, a favorite style of the designer’s. “I knew Andrew had been working [on the idea] for years, and that I would need to catch up very rapidly,” Jones said. “There is always a world of difference between China, the reality, and China, the design influence. That’s one of the core things in the exhibition really.”
A directional force for more than 35 years, Jones has collaborated with Rei Kawakubo, Raf Simons, John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Claude Montana. He knows Bolton from the curator’s days at the V&A, as well as through Bolton’s college friend Oriole Cullen. She, too, is a curator who worked with Jones on his own “Hats” show in 2009. “Our lives have intertwined over the years. Actually, the museum world is very small. Everyone really does no eachother – it’s a bit frightening really,” Jones said.
Inspiration sprang from different corners of the world. In Detroit with Hamish Bowles last fall, Jones went to the Henry Ford Museum and saw some of Elizabeth Parke Firestone’s couture pieces, while researching his own collection. Bowles thought an “amazing” handpainted Balenciaga dress, which also had a hat, seemed just right for Bolton’s show, Jones said. Far more unexpected will be a pairing of two mannequins, one with a headdress that appears to be made of blossoms and another of bamboo. “The two will kind of mingle together, so it’s going to look as though they are in a pergola or something. They are almost not going to look like hats eventually,” Jones said.
Highlighting head pieces inspired by the 12 Imperial Symbols and their respective meanings, he said. “Yes, I love history and I love art, but this has been a whole world, which I knew nothing about. Apart from creating the hats, it’s been fantastic to learn. You know when you’re 22, as opposed to 21, you learn a bit more? Actually, this has been almost like going to school – you know you really had to do proper study.”