In its heyday, they used to employ 2500 people in the 28 hat factories of the town of Chazelles, situated not far from St Etienne in the Department of Loire. That was a lot of rabbits...
That was the best. That was very good quality.
The last factory closed five years ago, but the tradition and the skills are still there thanks to the very nice Museum-Workshop of the Hat.
The curator, Elianne Bolomier explains to us that it's about much more than a simple museum.
From the beginning, well we always wanted to keep the know-how, much as many museums do. But often it is maintained in a passive state, and we wanted however to go well beyond that and for us to have active maintenance, as we already had contacts with the designers that had already been done when we moved in, we started up, we started a training centre for hat fashion, so with the help of the milliners and fashion teachers, we train some sixty trainees per year. It is important to show not only that the hat business is alive, but also that there are people who can make remarkable things.
So, if you are a hat designer yourself, there is also an international competition. The 2003 competition has just been announced.
Yes, it's the fifth competition. We started in '95 because, well, it was especially about showing that in Europe, no even in the world, there are hat designers, young designers because quite often the reaction of people, it's to say "no one wears a hat any more, it's something from the past". So, this was to prove to them the opposite, that there are young designers in Europe who are making hats. So we had the idea of creating this competition. We started with very few candidates and then, well two years ago, for the fourth competition we had 125 hats from 14 different countries and so each year we try to have a theme. So it is interesting to show, also to see how, a little bit, the designers work around a simple theme, then most of the hats are exhibited for 4 to 5 months in the museum. The theme this year is recycled materials. It's a theme which is also quite fashionable and around the environment and so the exhibition will be called "Metamorphoses", so it will open on 18th May until the last weekend in September. So there will be about 100 items on exhibition and for the prize giving then, that will take place on the 17th May, there will be a fashion show of the thirty best designs.
This competition In fact is also for professionals and amateurs. We agree a lot about the importance however of quality, the quality of workmanship and we ask that the hat be comfortable and wearable and original. There is a jury which is composed of fashion professionals, so there is the fashion house Hermes which has a seat on the jury and there is a Hermes Prize.
For the everyday visitor, workshop visits are organized. And as we are about to learn, everything starts with rabbits:
So, the fur when it arrives, it comes from Coupery. These are the factories which recover the pelts in the abattoirs. They shave the fur and this fur arrives then in bags, of 2.5 kilograms in the factories. And when it arrives, it is not very clean. There are still little bits of skin, so we have to clean it, and that is the job of the blower.
From this side there is the bastisseur who puts a cone into the machine, a perforated cone which turns around itself. When he is about to close the doors, the mechanism starts up and the pelts arrive from above and a very strong vacuum cleaner starts from below. So the pelts are about to get stuck onto the cone. He reopens the doors - that lasts two minutes - he reopens the doors and pulls the lever, he is about to douse the whole of the cone in hot water to stick the pelts. Then he takes the cone out. He holds it up and he carefully takes away the bell. It is very fragile. We could say a spider's web. This one is a bit matted, otherwise it wouldn't hold together.
You see, we start big because then after felting we're getting to a smaller and smaller size and it will have lost four fifths of its size.
So, we have several cones: this one for making the tops of the hat, the skull cap, this one for mufflers, these are strips of cloth which provide a decoration, or for the fashionable to make hand sewn hats, that one over there is for making a mountain soldier's beret that we call a pie - that's the only rabbit skin beret - that, that was used during the second world war when the Germans requisitioned the factories in Chazelles to make bootees for their soldiers who were going to the Russian front, you see, because there are very strong and water proof.
So, as I told you, the bell is very fragile, we could say a spider's web, so in order to felt it, we are not going to send it directly in to the machine. We are going to give it its first felting by hand. This is the work of a semousseur.
And then, there is the finishing work to do:
You have this one, that's shaved felt, that is the most common. This is the Flemish, it has a furry look. And this one is called the mole, it has a velvety look, it is the most beautiful, but also the most expensive. To get a shaved felt, we use a sander with a very fine sand paper. It is a difficult job as we must not make a hole or it would end up in the bin. For the Flemish, at the outset we will choose a hare's pelt, because that's the longest. And with this machine, the "carleteuse", this little metallic brush is going to just pull back the skin and give it a furry look. For the mole, the softest, we are going to use the skin of a dogfish. The dogfish is a shark and when its skin is dry, it grates, it has little hooks and we would say grate.
So here then we are getting to the transformation. So the transformation to change the bell into a hat, and well we have to have some moulds, some frames. We need quite a lot of them. You can recognize some frames as head pieces, the military helmet, the boater, the mountain soldiers's beret. So, all these frames, they are made from linden wood. It is a wood that does not mark the fur, and especially, well it is resistant to steam.
Hats today are no longer of course fashionable. But the decline has let it find a new life, as a way to affirm an individual style. You have to be daring to wear a hat today and according to Madame Bolomier, it is rather the young people who do it:
Whether it be the millinery of fur, or straw, or fabric, there has been a decline since the 1960s because we wear the hat less and less; why do we not wear the hat any more? It is because it is a matter of fashion, a matter concerning a change of way of living, or mentality. In the 60s, maybe even 68, 70 a little bit after the popular uprising, there was a rejection of the hat which was associated with the bourgeoisie, with constraint, and we could say that since the 1990s on the other there has been a rebirth of the hat and the hat is worn today by young people.
Phillippe Noiret, Michal Serrault are men who still wear a hat and very, very nice hats too. Some films have had quite a role for the hat, the film, l'Amant, I don't know if you way it, that young woman who wears a very nice man's hat which was made but the say by the house of Motch-Hermes, there was then a fad for the hat and in that style and notably among the young.
 In 1968 there was a popular uprising in France.
 Phillippe Noiret (1930-2006) was a very popular actor who made more than 100 films.
 Michal Serrault (1928-2006) was a very popular actor who made more than 150 films.
 L'Amant (the lover) 1992 movie directed by Jean-Jacques Annand starring Jane March and Tony Leung.
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