Like all eccentrics, Stephen Jones is fascinated by history. The merry milliner and Anglophile finds inspiration in everything from Britain’s neoclassical architecture to those romantic poets, with their tight bonnets and loose turbans. Currently on view at the glorious Bowes Museum outside London, he’s donned vintage mannequins with items from his personal hat collection and given the exhibit the rather provocative name From Georgiana to Boy George. Here, Jones gives us his unique perspective on Georges King and Boy, the Diamond Jubilee (where there will be only one Queen, mind you), his ongoing gig at Dior and the inimitable Elsa Schiaparelli …
Tell us about the show, Stephen. It sounds fantastic.
It’s a collection of hats from Georgiana to Boy George that I’ve collected over the last 30 years. I’ve always loved Georgian neoclassicism. It’s in the Bowes, a museum built in the 17th century. Basically one branch of the family got the title and the other branch got the money. The guy who got the money went to Paris with an Englishwoman, and stuffed this mansion full of amazing paintings, antiques and furniture.
What makes a Georgian hat Georgian?
A Georgian hat has a very elegant line. Most of the old buildings in London are Georgian, built around 1750. They’re the nice neoclassical ones, with really beautifully proportioned rooms. But then when it gets into the next era, Victorian, it gets gothic and really itsy bitsy.
Interesting to have Boy George in the title of your show. You two go way back.
Yes, here’s a funny story about George. I used to have this little minivan. One day I was driving around Parliament Square and George was singing in the back of my van. George has got the most exquisite singing voice and I believe there’s no recording that sounds as good. It’s unbelievable. I remember telling him he should be a singer. He said, “Oh, I’d really like to, but I haven’t got the confidence.” How things have changed!
And a short while later he’s topping charts in full chameleon regalia.
That’s also how I started to work in Paris. I appeared in the video of Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, where Jean Paul Gaultier saw me. He was working on his first menswear show, slightly inspired by what I was wearing in the video. He asked me to model in the show. I couldn’t do it, but I went to Paris and visited him. He asked me to do the hats for his women’s collections and that’s how I started to work in Paris. It was all because of George.
I remember you attended the McQueen Met Gala. Have you seen the new show?
No, I didn’t come over for the Met Ball this time. In fact I had fittings at Dior on the day of the Met Ball. With all the changes at Dior I really had to be there. Raf [Simons] has invited me to work there again so all my energy is focused on that, and of course Marc Jacobs. But I know it’s basically a collection from the Brooklyn Museum. There are some things from the Met that Andrew [Bolton] and Harold [Koda] showed me before. All the stuff from Brooklyn I haven’t seen. It’s the weirdest thing in the world. Suddenly every museum in the world is realizing that fashion exhibitions are real crowd-pullers, and they’re desperate to show fashion collections. And yet Brooklyn is the only museum that actually doesn’t want to show a fashion exhibition. But I know textiles are really expensive to keep. They take up a lot of resources and space. The Brooklyn Museum, from what I understand, just isn’t interested in textiles and costumes, and have decided to focus on other areas.
I guess if you’re going to give up your collection, the Met makes a very nice home.
The Met never had that big of a collection of Schiaparelli. Apparently she offered her archives to the Louvre in Paris in the 1950s, but the Louvre said no. They didn’t want it. From what I understand she then offered it to the Met, but they also said no. In fact she’d been going around before the war, holding fundraisers to send money back to the French Resistance. The best turnout she had was in Philadelphia, so that’s why she eventually gave her collection to the Philadelphia Museum, and apparently now they have the best Schiaparelli collection in the world. She was really amazing. She’d give these fundraising speeches and thousands of ladies would turn up to convention centers, and they all sent money to France.
I love her zest for life and the unorthodox.
Yes, she started the idea of conversation pieces, wearing an unusual item of clothing and talking about it. She showed clothes didn’t have to be about beautifying your figure. They could have character, which is what I love to do, too.
Have you worked with Prada?
No, I never have. In my dreams. Technically it’s really difficult to do because I have fittings for the Paris collections during the Milan collections. That almost means I can’t do it just because of the timing. The Prada show is usually four days before Dior. Miuccia does change her mind at the last minute, and I’m not sure my brain is big enough to handle it [laughs].
Let’s talk about the Diamond Jubilee that’s coming up.
It kicks off on a Saturday. Street parties will be happening all over Britain. Saturday morning there are also the Darby horse races. The Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge [Kate Middleton] are going to that. Then on Sunday is the memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral with all the royal carriages. A huge procession will go through all of London. After that the Queen goes to the Mansion House. I can’t believe I can remember all this. Usually I can’t even remember my name.
Sounds like a lot of pomp and circumstance…
Absolutely. The guilds will be out too. They’re ancient guilds from medieval times that still exist, mostly doing charitable work. They will wear their amazing medieval clothes, like crazy 15th-century outfits. Then on Tuesday there’s a procession down the river Thames, where thousand of boats from all over the commonwealth will show their stuff, including the small civilian ships that brought the servicemen back from France at the end of WWII. They’ve even made a royal barge based on the royal barges they had in Tudor times in the 1600s. It’ll have thrones with eagles and griffins all over [laughs]. It’s full on. In a funny way, I think for the British people the Jubilee is a bigger deal than the Olympics. We know the Americans will win swimming, we know the Russians will win at shot put, we know the Chinese will win at gymnastics. What will we win for? Rowing?
What kind of hats will people wear at the Jubilee? Are there likely to be missteps like there were at the Royal Wedding last year?
People will wear red, white and blue, the colors of the Union Jack. Obviously if you’re going to the service at St. Paul’s, you want to be smart about it. I think everyone is very aware that the Royal Wedding was really over the top, almost too showy. I think people are going to be more discreet. You can’t go too big, especially in a cathedral. It’s the Queen who’s going to shine. You really don’t want to outshine the Queen. I don’t think she’s going to wear a crown, but she’ll have on a big brooch.
I feel like even the drag queens will show deference to the Queen on her big day.
I remember the Silver Jubilee years and years ago, around 1980. My friends and I were club bunnies, and we came out in full make-up onto all these people lining the route. We thought we looked really normal, but everyone looked at us like freaks. The feeling was mutual.