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The Hat that Roared

The Hat that Roared

An upcoming exhibition traces how a humble handmade cap became a global symbol of protest.

The Hat that Roared

An upcoming exhibition traces how a humble handmade cap became a global symbol of protest.
August/September 2017 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Betsy Greer
Mediums Fiber
2017 women's march

On January 21, 2017, an estimated 2 million people attended women’s marches worldwide, with pussyhats the headgear of choice. The cap, which began as an ironic response to misogyny, became an iconic symbol of female power, solidarity, and resistance.

Brian Allen

When Beth McLaughlin headed to the Women’s March on Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, she wore a pussyhat she’d bought on Etsy. Once there, she was astonished by the sea of pink hats, mirrored in photos from sister protests in the US and beyond that drew more than 2 million people. As chief curator at Fuller Craft Museum, she realized they’d make a great show at the museum. She put out the call, requesting pussyhats for an exhibition, programs, and archiving.

While the museum has shown work with an activist bent before, this exhibition presents new challenges. It’s set to open in January, exactly a year after the women’s marches, limiting the time to prepare. And unlike most of the museum’s shows, it will feature objects made mostly by ordinary people in their living rooms, rather than by artists in their studios. Finally, because both the hats and the march have had their critics, McLaughlin feels the need to sincerely and respectfully engage people from all sides – no small task.

McLaughlin is eager to share how handmade items become part of public conversation, connecting and communicating. There’s a wealth of stories behind the hats. Months after the march, she has a sense of how women around the world felt in January – and how hope can persist in the face of uncertainty.

Here’s a look at how “Revolution in the Making” is shaping up at the Brockton, Massachusetts, museum.

You’ve said you’re not a maker, so you bought rather than made a pussyhat. Did you get one for the march?
I did. The weekend after the election, a group of my friends and I made plans to go to the march in Washington. A couple of days after that, I started seeing postings on social media for the Pussyhat Project, an initiative asking knitters to make pink, cat-eared hats for the march. I’m always game for a good accessory, certainly, but I also love this notion of fashion as a way to suggest solidarity. Whether it’s wearing a Red Sox hat at a ballgame or a musician’s T-shirt at a concert, I just love this thought of wearing something to establish a connection with others and to show common ground.

What was your reaction to seeing all these handmade hats at once, at the march and then later in the photos?
It was wild. To witness this handmade object take such a central role in this massive protest was almost shocking, just to see the extent of it. The hats were almost like a uniform for the participants and, in some ways, like armor – but, of course, this very soft, non-threatening armor.

When did the hats, those personal objects, become items you wanted to share at the museum? What was the defining moment?
Well, to be honest, any connection between the Pussyhat Project and the march and my curatorial work didn’t cross my mind for several days following the march. As I started looking at all the photos and reading press about the marches, it just became so clear that the pussyhat had become this material-culture phenomenon and that we were witnessing this breaking open of the creative community.

I know the show is still in the planning stages, but what is its basic premise?
It will essentially tell the story of the movement through handmade pussyhats, some photography of the marches, and some behind-the-scenes photos and other related objects. All of the hats that we have – nearly 400 now – will be in the exhibition, most of which were worn in one of the marches. We will later acquire maybe one or two that have particular significance for our permanent collection.

We’ve been working with Stefanie Kamerman of the Pussyhat Project; she’s been helping us source the related objects. She’s offered the first test hat for the Pussyhat Project, and she sent some really wonderful Lego figures with 3D-printed pussyhats and other media that incorporate this iconic headwear – embroidery, watercolor paintings. Those objects are fascinating – to see how this fiber-based object has bled into other media and been embraced in all realms of creativity.

What about comments from women of color who saw the march and the knitted hats as products of white feminism? Will that be tackled, and if so, how?
It’s definitely something that we will be looking at and representing in some way. Any examination of the march and of the Pussyhat Project should address the shortcomings. I feel like it’s also evolving day to day, so we’re going to wait and see how the whole movement pans out. But I do think it’s so important to show all the facets of what has been happening.

There was also talk of how the hats, especially given their name, were exclusionary to trans women. Is that something that will be broached?
It will. I think that’s another perceived misstep – not picking up on how the pussyhats were positioned in gender politics, this criticism that it essentially failed to include all individuals who identify as women and really only applied to those with a vagina or “pink parts,” as it were. Again, as with the controversy about white feminism, it’s just important that we, as a cultural institution, show all sides of the movement.

What else will be up in the museum at the time of this show?
A fiber show, “Threads of Resistance,” will be up in an adjacent gallery. That work is being created in direct response to the Trump administration. And I think that we’ll be able to include other types of presentations within the museum at that time that are in a similar vein.

That sounds great. As you’re collecting the hats, you’re asking for the stories behind them. Has anything surprised you or come up repeatedly?
What struck me the most was just the range of makers. We have received hats from first-time makers who were inspired by what happened with the election to pick up needles and learn a craft. We are working with professional fiber artists and people who have never engaged in activism before. And then there are professional activists. We even have this young girl that made her own pussyhat and one for her American Girl doll.

I think the stories that really stuck with me are those of individuals who took it even one step further and used the act of making to financially support social causes and some of the threatened organizations.

It seems like having these hats on display leaves open the chance for dialogue with people who don’t agree with the movement. Do you plan on using this exhibition to create conversation with those people, as well as with children still forming their opinions?
Absolutely. We’ve talked with individuals who completely support what we’re doing, we’ve had conversations with those who are curious or just don’t understand it and want to get more clarification, and we’ve had some difficult conversations with those who are offended and really don’t agree with what we’re doing. For the most part the conversations are respectful, and there really hasn’t been this objective to change each other’s minds, which I think helps.

In a lot of shows the museum puts together, you’re dealing with items made in the studio environment. What’s it like working with things made on the go, on people’s couches, in knitting circles?
The project has really challenged us to reconsider our curatorial strategies. To really stay true to the ethos, we will be putting a lot of emphasis on dialogue and participation. And we’ll offer opportunities for discussion for those who have been on the front lines of craftivism, those who have worn the hats and created the objects. We’re really going to try to keep the spirit of the movement and how the hats were created.

Another part of it that’s been interesting for me, as a curator, is this shift from looking at an object and valuing it for technical skill and for the innovative use of the materials to, in a sense, making that secondary and focusing more on the intent and the meaning and the transformational potential. That’s something that, as an institution, we haven’t done a lot of. But I think it will be a practice that will be more and more important to what we do, to present the full range of craft.