The Art of Millinery
From mid-April to July 2023, my hats were featured in a solo exhibition at the Thousand Island Arts Center in Clayton, NY in the heart of the historic Thousand Islands. The exhibition, titled The Art of Millinery: Hats by Sally Caswell, culminated in a reception and millinery fashion show. Below is an interview I had with fellow Milliners Guild member, Allison Lyndes.
Firstly, congratulations on your exhibition! How did this project originally come about?
About a year ago, the local newspaper from my hometown of Watertown, NY published an article about me and my millinery world. A board member from the Thousand Islands Arts Center saw the article and had the idea to have an exhibition of my hats at the arts center. She contacted me to see if this was anything I would be interested in, and of course I was, then she presented the idea to the other board members and the director. They liked it.
How many hats were included in the exhibition? How were they selected or curated?
There were 39 hats in the exhibition. The curator and I talked about what to include, and we ultimately decided that we would focus on spring/summer hats since that would be the season of the exhibition. But when I went to set up the show, I brought along a few extra hats, you know, just in case. We ended up using everything, so we did have one table with fall/winter.
Were the hats on display mainly from your archives, or specially made for this exhibition?
It was a mix. I wanted to make more new hats specially for the exhibition, but the opening date coincided with Derby and the spring events season, the busiest time of year for milliners. So I made as many hats as I could, then had to make some choices about what to put in the shops and what to put in the exhibition. I had some hats from previous years, some of which I had never listed for sale, so I included some of those as well.
Did the hats on display tell a story about your millinery journey?
Hmm, I don’t know that there’s some linear story that you could follow, but the exhibition did showcase hats that I have made both for retail sale as well as hats that I have made for exhibitions and competitions, and they are certainly not the same. When making hats for competitions and exhibitions, my focus was never on salability but rather on the theme presented and on trying a new technique. I think that’s one of the reasons milliners love to make hats for those kinds of things. We can make anything we want without having to considerwhether someone will want to buy it. It opens up a lot of creativity.
This hat was made for competition whose theme was A Right Royal Knees Up Wedding. My hat was inspired by the bearskin royal guard hats. I won Best Interpretation of the Theme for this one.
It sounds like the exhibition really showed your versatility as a milliner, could you tell us about the variety of some of the pieces that were on display?
There was a little bit of everything - casual, dressy, edgy, and conceptual. I think most of what I make are occasion wear hats, so there were lots of those in the show, but this exhibition was also a sale and was located in an area where most people don't wear hats for special occasions. I wanted to include a few casual pieces for people who aren't used to wearing something dressy on their heads. I also showed the competition and exhibition hats, as I mentioned, and I have a couple of punk inspired hats that I made just because I wanted to. I'm not sure who would wear those or where they would wear them, but I had the idea to do it, and I love them. And now people got to see them.
You have had experience with installing exhibitions in the past. Were there any unique challenges in preparing for this exhibition?
I guess I had two challenges this time. The first was to stop worrying that the exhibition wouldn’t be interesting to people. I’ve never set up a show that was just of my hats, and it was a little nerve racking. Second, these hats have to be stable in the display for 2 1/2 months, but they also need to be removed and replaced if someone wants to try something on (they are all for sale). The mannequin heads are pretty easy to place, but the stands with foam balls are a little different, as anyone who has helped with our MG exhibits can tell you. When I have set up exhibitions in the past, all sorts of mechanisms have been used to make sure those hats don’t move until the show is over. Some of those techniques were not an option this time.
How was the exhibition received?
I got so much great feedback. People seemed to really enjoy seeing hats that weren’t just baseball caps. A few people told me they went to see the exhibit multiple times, and a number of people traveled a fair distance to come see it. We had a fashion show and reception at the end,and everyone had such a good time. It was not fussy at all, just a lot of fun. The models said they all felt very glamorous wearing my hats, and it was a great opportunity for other people to see the hats on heads instead of just mannequins. It makes such a difference.
What are your own feelings about the exhibition?
I was nervous at the beginning because I've never had to fill an entire exhibit myself, but it all worked out so well, and I’m really happy with it. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
The article that started it all:
And the follow up for the exhibit: