Dahling, You Look So Accessorized!

The art -- and the fun -- is in the hats, handbags, and gloves

When my editor suggested I pay a visit to the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History in Delray Beach to see a show called "Hats, Handbags & Gloves: From Past to Present," my first reaction was, more or less, "You're kidding, right?" My second reaction was that of any sane writer who wishes to continue gainful employment: I agreed to schedule a visit, although not without some skepticism.

But the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History -- or MLFH, as the museum's logo helpfully abbreviates it -- is something of a pleasant surprise. And there are good reasons most of us, including me, had never heard of it before: It has been around since October 1999, although it didn't have its own facility until October of last year.

MLFH is now housed in a small space in an unassuming strip mall a few blocks north of Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach's continually evolving downtown area. The space, executive director/chief curator Lori J. Durante told me, was donated to the museum by the strip mall's owner. One of the museum's goals is to start construction of its own 25,000-square-foot facility later this year. For now, the current location is undergoing renovations, with sections of the facility roped and curtained off from the public.

Chapeaus and leather handbags: Is this the start of something little?
Chapeaus and leather handbags: Is this the start of something little?

Before setting up shop in its current space, MLFH was more of a lending and resource institution. It coalesced into a real museum after the success of the long-running 1999 show "40 Years of the Barbie Doll: In Celebration of Women's History Month," which Durante put together first for the Cornell Museum at the Old School Square in Delray, not far from MLFH's new home, then for the city's public library. Even "Hats, Handbags & Gloves" was on display at another venue in late 2002, then reconfigured for this encore.

The museum has a three-pronged mission statement, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you view mission statements:

"To curate and host history exhibits about people/places/events/items and the fashion, architecture, furnishings, popular culture, locomotive, toys and decorative arts depicting lifestyle of an era.

"To provide educational & cultural arts programs.

"To enhance tourist attractions and the economy of the area."

Durante's "Hats, Handbags & Gloves" show certainly fits the bill, in a nebulous way. Press materials describe it as "A multi-media anthropology exhibit" divided into four components -- Ethnic Cultures, Work-Life & Sports, Everyday Life, and High Fashion -- although the sections sort of bleed together, perhaps because of the limited space. You won't find a replica of the big $6,000 Hermès handbag Martha Stewart has been taking flak for when she carries it to court, but there's plenty of variety here.

The Ethnic Cultures section begins with an unnerving reminder of the Taliban's reign in Afghanistan: a replica of a burqa (or burqú or chadri), the full-body garment Afghan women were once forced, and many continue, to wear. This reproduction, created by Christina Rodriguez, is in the familiar purple and features the sequined mesh area that allows the wearer to see but not be seen. The garment has a strange beauty that's undercut by our knowledge that it is used as an instrument of oppression.

Also among the ethnic hats: an Uzbek-style hat like the one worn by Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, a century-old Swiss engagement hat, a Tibetan sheep herder hat, a Flamenco hat, a mauve cap from the Chinese Catholic Cardinal Yu-Pin, and a feathered Seminole turban.

I'm never quite sure what to make of handbags. Most of them seem pretty ordinary, probably because most of the women I know seem to think of them primarily in utilitarian, not decorative, terms. The purses in this show tend toward the other extreme: handbags for special occasions. One of the display cases holds four so tiny that it would be absurd to think of them as anything other than showy accessories: a round chatelaine bag (c. 1860) with black steel beads; a black crocheted bag (c. 1880) with black fringe; a brown pleated bag (c. 1910) made of faille (a slightly ribbed woven fabric), silk-lined, and with a rope handle; and an undated, miniature, red velvet bag from Belgium, with white trim and glass beads.

Some of the handbags are wildly over-the-top. There's a tiny, thin, rectangular vanity bag in gold-tone metal, with one compartment for cigarettes, the other for mirror, comb, lipstick, and powder. A brocade bag opens to reveal opera glasses and a beveled mirror.

But it's hats that are the real stars of this exhibition. There are some vintage Chanels, along with baby bonnets and Stetsons; headgear for nurses, firemen, miners, and military personnel; straw hats and baseball caps (including two signed by Sandy Koufax). There are also hat boxes and hat blocks. And there are extravagant hats that reminded me of the 1960s, when the churchgoing women in my hometown wore hats that made them look like exotic birds.

It would have been nice if curator Durante had included more samples of men's headwear. But the museum is still in the early stages of development, and MLFH will certainly mount more ambitious exhibitions down the line. (One show mentioned in a brochure as "in development" sounds rich with promise: "Denim: From Work Clothes to Haute Couture.")

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