The Mad Hatter Laughs Back
A la recherche d'un chapeau
by James Elliott
4900 words approx with 10 illustrations
Contains a small amount of strong language (like Shakespeare and The Bible).
"Where did you get your hat?" was the stranger's opening gambit.
'I made it.' I replied.
"You made your hat?!" exclaimed the man, aghast with incredulity.
'Yes', I assured him.
'That's amazing!' he declared, his stare now transfixed to the hat.
The fact that I was standing in front of a truly amazing masterpiece which took me 407 hours of work to create, completely eluded him. It may as well have not been there. Such is people's sophisticated appreciation of art.
Over the years this conversation about the origins of my hat, has come up hundreds of times. Many have little understanding of the spectacular effort required to create a photographic masterpiece, but they can comprehend that making a hat is not easy. Even though it was 50 times easier than my masterpiece. Similarly, when one of my masterpieces sells for tens of thousands, they understand that only too well, but then again, money is undoubtedly easier to comprehend than art.
My hats have garnered literally thousands of compliments around London over the years, so were I to judge by vox pop alone, I definitely hit the spot. I have been on the receiving end of a few insults, too. But hey! It's an infinite Universe! Most humanoids have a rather pleasant disposition and demeanour, we train them that way, but you get the odd imbecile, weirdo or psycho hahahahaha. If you do anything other than blend with the scenery, it comes with the territory. If you take a 7 billion sample of anything, you will always get a few that don't work properly. A small number of defective units. Such is order and chaos. Such is the human race hahahahaha
People shout compliments from passing cars, utter praise as I'm passing by on the pavement and they walk over to me with munificent comments, in clubs, hotels and bars. The hats seem to cross class boundaries, too. Everything from "Spiffing good headgear ol' boy" to "Nice titfer mate" (usually pronounced 'noice'). For those unfamiliar with Cockney rhyming slang, this colloquialism is a contraction of 'tit for tat - hat'.
This is all well and good and I am ever grateful for the generosity of spirit, but insults are far more entertaining than compliments, so let's run with that, for a moment. One oblique insult in a London Nightclub arrived thusly:
"Your hat looks cool but it lacks credibility."
I know a fatuous remark when I hear one. He was probably thinking 'street cred', one of the late twentieth century's more asinine notions. Not something I had ever aimed for. I was more 'artistic cred'. Nothing much goes on in the street, other than getting from here to there.
The unsolicited testimonial came from a man of no particular sartorial elegance so I retorted:
"That would make my hat in-credible, then!", which I thought was very punny (as was that).
I must concede a little schadenfreude when I observed his predicament, half an hour later. Obviously inebriated, he was being ousted from the club, literally carried horizontally, face to the ceiling, by two big bouncers in the usual dark overcoats. I tried hard not to snigger. I looked down at him as he passed me by and quipped:
"Your mode of departure is excellent, but it lacks credibility!"
Obviously we were enjoying ourselves just a little too much for his liking. So on this occasion, I decided to minimise the repartee, but it required something to avoid l'esprit de l'escaliers or should I say l'esprit de l'ascenseur?! hahahaha. Actually, if already descending it's probably l'esprit de la rue hahahaha. The other thing is, of course, it's never a particularly good idea to start an argument in a confined space. So I just smirked and made a polite comment about his bad manners. "No manners where you grew up?". It required no more. Jealousy is self explanatory.
We left the Hilton laughing and joking about how the recession had lowered the quality of the clientele, the staff and the service... hahahaha.
"They have to take what they can get! hahahaha."
"Letting the riff-raff in hahahaha."
"Fiscal challenges.... Needs must when the devil drives...... hahaha"
"A temporary lapse of standards, we trust.... hahaha."
One nightclub regular who mistakenly thought himself a wit, saw my hat so often he enquired, "Do you sleep in that hat?"
To which I replied "Yes, I have a special slot in the pillow."
Stupid questions are just aching for stupid answers.
"Yes, I am the only one who doesn't have to get changed for Ascot.", I replied.
One evening in full regalia (cloak, hat and boots) a nightclub attendee walked over to me and exclaimed just three words: "Jack The Ripper!"
I thought 'Nutter!', so reversed the compliment.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Jack." I responded.
One thing you learn from all this, including the myriad of compliments, is that although there is a general consensus, people can see the same thing in completely different ways. The same is true with art.
As I mentioned earlier, one finds in life, that most people are fairly pleasant, but it also has to be said, one does encounter a few pretentious plebeian plonkers, with personalities like packets of disease. Bullets of poison.
I avoid these people, lest such diseased energy should ultimately contaminate my own.
So the hat acts as an early warning system. A psychology test, if you like. My hat is extreme, no-one else has one. This a fair expression of who and what I am. I am not beige or biscuit. So if a person I encounter initially reacts badly, I almost certainly do not wish to meet them. Useful shorthand.
One day in March of 1991, having had tea in Park Lane, I went with a friend to Bill Wyman's 'Sticky Fingers' restaurant in Kensington. The receptionist said to my friend "That man has such style and class." As if it were necessary to speak through an equerry. Afterwards, we went to Stringfellows where I met Peter Stringfellow for the first time. He approached me and said "Great outfit!". So reactions can vary, but they are mostly munificent.
I remain constant. The audience changes, not I.
One evening in January 1998, I went to Emporium NIghtclub in London with a friend. Xavier the manager, comes over and takes us into the VIP lounge. Something hilarious happens. Unbeknownst to me, a prankster plonker tells a glamorous girl to come over and grab my hat. I notice her approach from the side in my peripheral vision and as she lifts her hand to grab my hat, I grab her arm, stopping her in her tracks. Still holding her arm, I fix her with a stare and say "I don't think we've met......". She asks who I am. I tell her and suddenly her attitude changes. She says she is a make up artist and model and then asks if I would shoot her. She tells me she has "gorgeous boobs". I say "No doubt", but she insists on taking them out to show me. They are double Ds. Very nice. The prankster who sent her over is gobsmacked and having observed the scenario from across the club, later enquires, "How the hell did you go from introduction to half stripped in 45 seconds?" and gazes at me in awe. Seriously, I did nothing.
My attitude towards these extremely diverse responses, is essentially this: You cannot all be right. So to the multitudinous majority who complimented me, may the Gods be with you. The world is a better place for having you here.
To the few that criticised or sought to cramp my style.... a pox on your house! You miserable fuckers! hahahahaha
But enough of this gay banter...... let's keep a sense of proportion here. The insults were a fraction of one per cent vis a vis the compliments. It also has to be said that in the 32 years I have been wearing the hats, as I write this, I have never, ever received a rude remark from a lady, it has always been from men. So hats off to you girls, it is a credit to your gender. According to my own particular vox pop, on a balance of averages you have better manners than men. Indeed, oft I would respond to rude men thusly: "That's OK, I wasn't thinking of taking this friendship any further", hahahahaha. I would alternate this with perhaps the most polite and efficacious 'fuck off' in the world: "Enjoy your evening!", which although expressing an innocuous pleasantry has a sub-text of 'Not with me' and 'Do run along', hahahahaha.
I originally intended the hats to last perhaps five years, but it was friends who wouldn't let them go. Whenever about to venture out into London's nightlife, friends would always say "James! Wear your hat!" because they knew it would be fun and cause attention, comments and interaction.
It was a good social mixer. Completely unintentionally. So the hats are still with me, more than three decades on.
I always loved hats.
To be more exact, I always loved classic Spanish attire, as exemplified by the waist length, fitted jackets, the tight trousers and especially the Spanish hats. All of which I have. Spanish attire seemed to have more glamour than English classical dress, with its naff suits and bowler hats. So when I came to design my own clothes, they were a sort of classical English take on Spanish style. A hybrid.
Two years later I was in Paris with Mars when a man wearing a Spanish hat and cape, swished past me in the street. I thought he looked fantastic. I turned around and watched him disappear into the crowd on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. In the early Eighties I saw Bowie performing on TV and in his band was a girl wearing a very sharp elegant hat. Again I thought it looked striking. So that was all in the memory banks when I came to create my own design in 1984. Inspiration always draws on experience, but one should never emulate. Instead, let your own persona shine through. Neither of these hats I had seen were anything like the one I designed, but both struck me as stylish. So their impression inspired me, but not their physicality.
For my own design I wanted something timeless. I knew I was creating timeless art and I wanted my outfits to be timeless too. Most art is last years bell bottoms, especially the crap which is the mainstay of the media. Particularly coerced controversy. Should we all be dutifully shocked? Count me out. So anyway, I wanted something classic. I thought it would be cool to look back on myself many years hence and not know which decade I was in. Rather than look like an Eighties, NIneties or Noughties fashion victim. Trends always look hideous from the perspective of an ensuing decade. Fashion fizzles. Oh hell! Look at those platform soles! hahahahaha Style however, somehow endures. For a long time, anyway. So things with style are enjoyed by the many, rather than the few. Style is altruistic, fashion individualistic.
It was also a question of what suited me. I made a mock up out of thick, corrugated cardboard for the brim and heavyweight paper for the centre piece. I subsequently photographed it, to see what it looked like on film. Pleased with my initial efforts, I took my dummy and showed it to a load of other dummies called hatters. The latter make men's hats, or so they purport. Milliners make ladies hats. In 1984 there were precisely three hatters in London, as hats were not at all fashionable. Still aren't, although it is spreading a little. Fashion is fun and frivolous. Style is serious. I wanted the latter, it's more me.
I showed the hatters my dummy and they just laughed. 'Very interesting, sir', said the man who had obviously been born quite old. Technically not possible, apparently. And they had nothing within a million miles of my design, they were all much more fuddy duddy. Homburgs, fedoras and trilbies sure, but outlandish, stylish, designs? Woe betide such sorcery. Well that wouldn't be cricket old boy hahahahaha. Their hats all looked so old. They all had a Fifties feel, more than a bit Bogart, so far from modern and not at all aesthetically pleasing. So my initial experience of hatters was odd.
Next I tried Kensington Market, famous for it's hand made clothes. There was a hat stall there and I thought I might get individual attention, but despite giving them a dummy to follow, my heart sank as they presented me their efforts. The brim was just all over the map. The sort of undulating floppy monstrosity a village girl would wear to a country wedding. Such indiscretions would get one banned from Ascot. They got quite stroppy when I pointed out that their product was a mile and half from my original design, so I made my excuses and left.
So my initial search for hatters failed disastrously. It was like walking into a jumble sale looking for haute couture.
I found only laughing and laughable hatters.
So I thought fuck 'em!
I'll make one myself.
I have this extraordinary faith in my ability to create things. And an innate talent to underestimate the effort and money required. It's a gift from the Gods, because had I all the information to hand in advance, it would work against me. I would often not proceed. And many a great creation would have been lost.
So anyway.... hats! I decided I would create my own. Labour of love that was. The initial design had to have the largest brim in the world, for increased elegance and style. Obviously there would be a point at which it would become comical, so I needed to establish what that point was. After much experimentation and photographing the results I established the diameter of 50cm (19.5 inches). This would decades later be reduced to 45cm when I delegated ro the Spanish. I initially thought hats were round but I tried one thusly and it looked bloody awful. The spatial balance, volumetrics and style all looked out of whack. So again by trial and error I established that the width needed to be 7% narrower than the length. I had one additional criterion, the brim must be straight as a blade. This is what had inspired me in the first place. None of this floppy cowboy hat nonsense. I wanted European elegance. Not the Wild West. I always hated cowboy films.
Also, having observed madness first hand ('Not me personally!' the hatter laughed hysterically hahahahaha), I also know that the brain can completely change your vision. As can hallucinogenic drugs, dreams, imagination and so on. States of consciousness are really what my art is all about. I am rarely just observational. Moderate cerebral alterations to vision, like colour correction and perspective, occur in normal people with no artificially added chemistry.
This initial Mark 1 design did not last long as I made it out of materials which were far too heavy. The hat felt uncomfortable and cut off blood circulation to my head after a while, so before I turned blue, I scrapped it and experimented with lighter materials.
One of the great challenges of such headgear is that people both admire them and find them fun. I have lost count of the number of times in a club when girls on the dance floor would swipe my hat and try it on and before you could say 'Hey!', the hat goes floating out over a sea of heads, often arriving back much later more than a bit damaged.
All good fun of course, but I eventually got fed up with constantly making and repairing hats, so I decided to search again for hatters. In 2007 I decided to skip London and go straight to the Spanish. They could make the smaller 'Moderato' hats, but their mould could not accomodate the 50cm brim of the larger 'Fortissimo'.
So I countered with, 'There must be some point at which it becomes economically viable to make a mould especially for me.' Which I guess is a nice way of saying 'How much?' To their credit they agreed to create a special mould, provided I ordered a minimum of three hats, which I duly did. They also stated that even with a custom mould, the hats could not be larger than 45cm. This was only an inch off each side smaller than the original design and I decided this would be barely noticeable (and no-one actually has noticed). This would also make them less prone to damage.
I have to give credit to the Spanish hatters for doing a great job. As a hatter I make a really great photographer hahahaha..... but I must be honest and say that the Spaniards made a far better hat than I ever could. Or indeed, given the type of hat in question, that English hatters ever could. Technically, I mean. They really are superb. Creatively the design remained mine, of course.
My initial design hasn't changed much over the years. It evolved slightly as I decided I prefer a flat top vis a vis the original indented top. And the diameter has reduced a little in size as I mentioned. The brim is now completely solid and does not give at all. Ideal for use in Frisbee fashion to fell rude waiters hahahaha. Other than these minor alterations, the design has stood the test of time.
I had also seen a beautiful scarlet lining inside another German hat, so I bought that too in my size and transplanted the lining. Improving yet further on the improvement. The German hat was otherwise aesthetically displeasing and unwearable, so I binned it. So the the latest design proved to be the most expensive, as I had to buy three hats to begin with and even more for the lining, but they are far and away the best.
It's 1989 and I am in the restaurant at Stringfellows enjoying a meal with Liz Caron, when suddenly someone, clearly inebriated, dangles their head and arms over the glass partition, rather like an ape.
"Lee Van Cleef!", he proclaims.
Sounded like he was talking Esperanto, so I said "What?"
He replied "You. Lee Van Cleef."
'No" I countered "Me James. Who you?"
I later found out that Van Cleef was the bad guy in 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' (a title clearly cloned from Wilde). I rather liked Van Cleef, I just always found cowboy films crass. What was interesting though, was that I didn't look even remotely like Van Cleef and his hat was nowhere near as good as mine. I was also once compared in the press to 'The Man With No Name'. I liked the sound of that, but had no idea who that was or wasn't. Later I found out it was a film starring Clint Eastwood. Again, I don't look anything like Eastwood and neither does my hat look like any of his. My hats are demonstrably superior.
In 1991 someone in Stringfellows walked over to me and said "Zorro!". I had no idea who that was, as the movies hadn't yet been made. The guy offered to show me who 'Zorro' was. Apparently it was an old TV series. I hardly ever watch TV, so wouldn't know. I'd rather create art. Again, television Zorro had an inferior, ordinary Spanish hat, smaller brim, less straight, no resemblance in looks (as he was masked) and he was obviously a fictional character. Another inane analogy.
Whomsoever I get compared to, depends upon what has just been in the movies or on the telly. Psychologically this remote association and inclination to draw parallels is called 'chunking down'. When confronted with something they cannot place or pigeon hole, people reach for the nearest thing in the memory banks, otherwise they feel uncomfortable with it. They need to associate it with something they already know. Such is our desire for order in the Universe. Psychological excuses aside though, ambassadors of approximation can be annoying.
People do the same thing with my art. Like 'Metasphere', for example, they always ask 'What is it?'. I never tell them, as that is the whole point. It's the world's first photo sculpture. It isn't like anything else. And neither is my hat. So just for the record and to avoid confusion, my hat looks Elliottonian. As does 'Metasphere'. In fact I think I'll call my hat an Elliottonian. Olé! I have a name for it. And a better one than Trilby or Homburg. 'Trilby' sounds like some kind if tutti frutti jazz and 'Homburg' like something you just had for dinner.
Over the years there have been countless comparisons with famous actors but they all had three common denominators: (a) None of them look anything like me (b) they all wear inferior hats and (c) they were all fictional characters.
I took a great pleasure in pointing out to people, "I am not acting." Doh. This is real life, not fantasy.
In London I only frequent upper middle and high class places. Life is worth nothing less and the hat precludes frequenting dives. In London one must acknowledge the laws of the jungle. It's not all St John's Wood and Knightsbridge. It can backfire very occasionally, indeed all laws do, as exemplified by the Hilton comedy of errors. However, that turned out to be a minor amusement compared to the lapse of standards I witnessed much later, whilst having a drink with a model lady friend, in a Northern hotel bar. The waiter emptied an entire pint of beer over a seated resident's chest! He was drenched! The guy must have been well versed in anger management, as he did not even utter an expletive! He was a big guy, the bar and restaurant were on the same floor as the gymnasium. One had to admire his composure. The waiter also remained silent and just gawked at his error, uncertain of the required protocol to proceed.
An apology perhaps? A towel? A change of clothing? Nothing was forthcoming. Shortly after, there were freshly baked potatoes rolling around the floor, as they fell from a tray held aloft by a waiter, clearly untrained in the skill of holding a tray aloft. All this happened in a ten minute time frame. You couldn't make stuff like this up! The hilarity of the situation made Fawlty Towers (the sit com about a badly run provincial hotel) look mildly amusing. It was an endurance test to restrain our laughter, so we left and went up to my 'executive suite', wondering what horrors to expect next! It turned out to be the 'work of art' on the wall of the suite. Being both of artistic persuasion, we agreed that although it was indeed, probably cutting-edge for MIddlesbrough, it probably wasn't for anywhere else hahahahaha. Life can be very entertaining at times.
I see the hat partly as a psychology test and also a measure of a venue's class. Places like The Ritz, Tramp and Stringfellows never questioned my attire. That is how it should be. A bunny girl receiving guests at the door of the Playboy Club, greeted me with "Good evening sir, you look fantastic!" Bit more like it. She was being sincere, as she made no comment to the other guests. Always nice when someone gives out positive energy. It's refreshing. Many are those with personalities like potatoes. They have no idea.
I take a dim view of establishments which object. Fortunately they are few and far between. I detest small mindedness. Likewise when I meet people, if they don't see anything extraordinary in my attire, I will probably like them, as the clothes are just an outward expression of my creativity and personality. I am not seeking attention. I don't need it. I am happy by myself and with myself. I am also happy with people. My mood doesn't change. I don't need attention or approval. I am simply expressing the real Elliott. I never was vanilla.
She asks, "Where did you get your hat?"
"I made it." I reply, vacantly staring into space and wondering if the conversation has been ghost written,
when suddenly it takes an unusual turn.....
"Can you make me 500?", she requests.
"No", I reply, suddenly regaining focus.
"Why not?", she counters.
I fix her with a stare, perhaps even a glare and proclaim "Because one Elliott is quite enough."
"Are you serious or joking?" she laughs.
'Both" says I.
Written by JAMES ELLIOTT
© JAMES ELLIOTT 2016