Stephen Jones for Christian Dior Haute Couture, “Olga Sherer inspirée par Gruau” hat, autumn/winter 2007/08,           © Christopher Moore/Catwalking. Courtesy of PEM.

Does anyone still wear a hat? I’ll drink to that, Stephen Sondheim mused jauntily in his iconic 1970 song “The Ladies who Lunch.”

More than 40 years later, we’re still asking that question. After all, how often do any of us wear hats anymore? I, for one, have yet to attend the Kentucky Derby, and, sadly, my invitation to William and Kate’s wedding must have been lost in the Royal Mail.

So it was with more than a touch of self-consciousness that I (literally) dusted off a broad-brimmed black chapeau to attend the opening reception of Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, the saucy new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts.

The show originated in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and this seems appropriate. After all, its subject harkens back to a more formal age, and, as Americans, I think we still think of England as a more mannered society. Salem, on the other hand, is better known for its nautical heritage and infamous witch trials. (Of course, this time of year, you do see plenty of hats on the streets of Salem—hats of the black and tall and pointy variety.)

A few years ago though, the Peabody Essex Museum hosted a gorgeous exhibit, Iris Apfel: Rare Bird of Fashion. It was a great success, and since then the museum has become a local center for couture and personal style as well as early American and Asian art. Staging Hats also gave the museum a chance to showcase headwear from its own extensive collections, including Chinese, Japanese, and Native American pieces, as well as period accessories from famous Boston retailers.

Stephen Jones, © Peter Ashworth 2008, www.ashworth-photos.com. Courtesy of PEM.

Here, as in London, the show was designed by legendary British milliner Stephen Jones. At once a playful visionary and a meticulous engineer, Jones has been described by Italian Vogue as “the maker of the most beautiful hats in the world.” In Vogue USA, Hamish Bowles added that “His genius is to enhance the mystery, allure, and wit of the wearer.”

The show comprises some 250 hats, hand selected by Jones. I expected them to be organized chronologically, but instead they are grouped by style, purpose, and in some cases sheer whim. So a leather jester’s hat from the sixteenth century shares a display case with similar shapes from other eras. The headwear of contemporary celebrities (earlier in his career, Stephen Jones was a favorite of Boy George as well as the royal family) sits aside Victorian bonnets, utilitarian caps, and fabulous concept pieces from movies and runways. And, speaking of “fabulous,” crowd favorites included a lime green fascinator worn by Sarah Jessica Parker, Darth Vader’s helmet, a Red Sox cap, and one that featured two fabric-wrapped figures in, shall we say, a compromising position.

Toward the end of the exhibit, a clever photo booth attracted an enthusiastic crowd. Sitting at a multimedia dressing table, guests shot digital self-portraits and combined them with images of hats from the exhibit. Ever wonder how you might look in a horned Viking helmet or an oversized top hat made from the British flag? Neither had I. But, it was certainly fun to see.

My daughter, Maddie Delande, dons a White Fedora and her friend Sara Cunningham takes on a Black Fascinator. I’m in the Broad-Brimmed Black Chapeau.

As much as I was enthralled by the exhibit, it was almost as exciting to watch the other attendees. I was pleased with my own hat; in fact I organized my entire outfit around it. My teenaged daughter sported a jaunty white straw fedora and her friend wore a feathery little fascinator. But we were woefully underdressed compared with some of the more flamboyant patrons. There were elaborate florals, jewels, veils and feathers, pillboxes, berets, and every size and shape of straw. One woman appeared to be wearing a classic Kelly bag on her head. “I love your hat!” was repeated over and over, and the evening quickly became a good-natured competition. (Even my husband regretted not having worn the tasseled faux leopard fez we gave him one Christmas as a joke. No joke!)

Apparently there were many people there with the same sense of regret. Luckily, the museum’s gift shop was open and very well stocked. Guests grabbed up handfuls of bejeweled $29 fascinators and posed for each other in sleek $300 boaters. There was even a Stephen Jones original, for $1,495. (Somehow, I resisted.) Meanwhile, women outside the store’s windows watched the impromptu fashion show and gave us approving thumbs-ups. It was as if the exhibit had given everyone permission to wear hats again, and we were all making up for lost time.

How did the hats make us feel? Dressed up. Finished. Classic. Civilized. As Jones lyrically explains in the show’s notes, “By sporting a hat, you can be a fairy princess, or you can be 50 Cent, or you can be a lady, or you can be a smart city gent.”

The exhibit encouraged me to remember the handful of hats from my own history. My mother, who looks like a Dior model in old family photos, dressed my baby self in exquisite little ensembles with delicate knit caps and bonnets in white dotted Swiss. As a Brownie, I wore the requisite beanie, replaced by a green felt beret when I moved up to a Girl Scout. In the early seventies I had a floppy hippy hat, and in the late seventies, a gold lamé baseball cap suitable for evenings at New York discos. As an adult, I had a dramatic black fur hat with a cowl that tied down under my chin and around my neck, which I paired with a floor-length Norma Kamali coat. Very Dr. Zhivago.

Philip Treacy, Feather hat, 1995, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Courtesy of PEM.

Yet on my wedding day, I eschewed a veil and tiara, and instead offset my spiky short hair and a portrait collar with huge aurora borealis earrings. The point is, while I have owned some statement pieces in the past, hats have been more the exception than the rule.

Until now. I’m not sure whether it’s a result of walking through the elegant exhibit or witnessing the feeding frenzy in the gift shop afterwards. Or maybe, now that I am undeniably a woman of a certain age, I am simply more confident and willing to make a statement. But, suddenly I find myself looking for the perfect hat.

I’ll drink to that.

The exhibition runs through February 3, 2013. Wear comfortable shoes and a fabulous hat.