The Talking Heads

Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide.  Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound.  Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier.  Her second novel, Bet Your Bones, is available at bookstores everywhere and the third, Bonereapers, will be released in June 2012.

I collect heads – millinery heads, that is.  The headhunting bug bit many years ago when I saw a papier maché head in a shop window on the rue St. Germain in Paris.  She wore a pink-feathered chapeau dipped rakishly across one eye, a defiant pout, and a safety pin with a price tag for the hat stabbed through her nose.  The hat didn’t move me, but I had to have the head.  I’ve been a headhunter ever since.

The word “millinery” derives from the city of Milan, whose milliners made ribbons and gloves and straws.  In the Middle Ages, the church decreed that a woman’s hair must be covered, but it didn’t prescribe how to cover it or offer any style suggestions.  Veils, kerchiefs, hoods, caps, wimples – they conveyed a political or a religious message and were used either to hide the face or enhance it.   But the art of millinery, the design and exaltation of the hat, didn’t begin until the Eighteenth Century.

With the advent of millinery, a lady’s hat became a statement of attitude and status.  The more elaborate the hat, the higher her status and the more refined her taste.  For over two hundred years in England and the tonier parts of the U.S., it was considered a faux pas for a woman to leave home without a hat.  Hats have always reflected the zeitgeist of the era – the politics as well as the social conventions.

I attended a luncheon in April to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  It was a swank affair.  Dressing a la steerage would have been frowned upon.  I therefore pinned a large flower to a broad-brimmed hat, borrowed a vintage Edwardian “walking suit,” and entered into upper-class society, circa 1912.  Wow!  The period costumes were dazzling and the hats – piled high with flowers, feathers, bows, and murderous looking hat pins the size of daggers – knocked my eyes out.  The ladies who sailed first class on the Titanic reflected the high tide of the hat era, if you’ll pardon the unhappy metaphor.

When women began to enter the work force in World War II, hats began to decline in popularity, but they have always held a special place in the world of fashion.  They are still de rigueur at royal weddings, at the Kentucky Derby and the races at Ascot, and who can forget the hat Aretha wore to President Obama’s inauguration?  A number of celebrities, including Lady Gaga, have taken to wearing fascinators – those chichi, anything-goes headpieces clipped into the hair.  Most retailers display their hats on bland Styrofoam or fiberglass mannequin heads.  But there was a time when the head that modeled the hat had as much personality as the hat, itself.  The artisans who crafted these display busts gave each face a unique expression – hauteur, shyness, pensiveness, flirtiness.  I have a gallery of them on the mantle above my fireplace.

Anique came from a shop in New Orleans.  She wears a rather stern expression, as if she doesn’t quite approve of what she sees going on in my living room.  Her neighbor Fleur is a Parisienne.  With a cloche tilted across one eye and a mischievous moue, she looks as if she might be strolling among the café tables in Pigalle, singing for her supper as the young Edith Piaf once did.  I found Rosa in San Francisco, although I suspect that she emigrated from Brittany.  Her expression is wistful, almost prayerful, as if she feels homesick for her native land.  Sometimes when I’m stuck for how to portray a particular character in one of my books, I consult my private line-up of heads.  In Bonereapers, my most recent Dinah Pelerin mystery, there is an enigmatic Norwegian woman with a secret past.  Married to a powerful American senator with presidential ambitions, she, too, is homesick – for her youth, for her husband’s love, for all things lost and irretrievable.  As I was spinning her life, I asked Rosa for hints.

And she answered.  Not out loud.  Not explicitly.  But she spoke to me nevertheless.  Milliner’s heads may not be as evocative as fine sculptures or paintings, but they communicate.  They imply the feeling.  And if I need additional inspiration, I can always add a hat.