Piers Atkinson, milliner, on his Chinese headdress.
GB Tell me what this is and why you chose this.
PA The object is a headdress from either a Chinese opera or wedding. It’s the most incredible head decoration. I’ll tell you how it came into my life. I used to work for the artist, Andrew Logan, who’s a fascinating man and artist and creative thinker. I worked with him for years and years while he lived and worked in a beautiful building called the Glasshouse, which he’s just about to move out of – and on the ground floor is a storage space for all his sculptures – which are made out of glass and mirror and resin, but also lots of found objects. So people give Andrew buckets of stuff; broken Christmas decorations, interesting this, interesting that, even clothes. And this was one of the things he was given. I used to get quite frustrated rummaging through all this stuff, trying to find this for his work, so every now and then we’d go through the garage and tidy everything up. This was great for me because firstly, it was paid work and secondly, I got first dibs on all the things he was getting rid of. So he pulled this thing out and it was the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen. It’s very faded so it must be quite old. The tassels would have been a very strong pink. I guessed it was Chinese but I didn’t really know what it was. I was so thrilled to be given it that I went and bought a book about Chinese opera and saw this picture of one that’s almost exactly the same, worn by the bride character. There’s also a layer of wig that goes underneath the headdress.
GB Have you ever worn it?
PA Oh yes I have.
GB What did you wear it with?
PA I think it was one of Zandra Rhodes’s kaftans. I wore it at one of Andrews parties so I would have been helping him and doing the washing up in that headdress. You can see that it’s made from layers of things on springs and hinges. There’s a lot of card and stuck on paper so you can pull it around a bit when it wilts. It’s come around with me for about twenty years.
GB So you had it even before you thought of making hats?
PA Yes. My mum makes hats, so I’ve always loved hats and headdresses and always made them for myself to go partying at clubs like Kinky Gerlinky and a bit later on, Kashpoint. So Andrew would have seen me wearing the hats I made at his parties and the Alternative Miss World, so that’s why he would have given me this.
GB Have you ever made anything like it?
PA Not quite like it, but I did make a huge pink wig based on another Chinese character. It has some of Andrew’s jewellery in it and it was a project for Zandra. I did a lot of portraits of her because she’s a fascinating character.
GB have you seen any Chinese operas?
PA Only on Youtube and I’m not sure it’s for my Western ears!
GB Oh no, did it put you off?
PA Not at all. It makes it even more extraordinary. I’ll tell you what that kind of thing does for me. It comes from the Imperial part of Chinese history so it’s steeped in thousands of years of tradition. So you have this style of music, these very stylized gestures, make up and characters that are so far from a Western sensibility. But the personalities are the same. So however different it seems, you’ve always got the bride, the thwarted lover, the villain, the possessive father. It shows that as much as our humanity is the same,we can express it in these incredibly different ways. It made me love the headdress more, that it can tell the same old story of a bride in such a different way. Some of them have Reeves’s pheasant tails attached that are six feet long. Those come from the most boring brown bird but it has this beautiful tail. Then when you see these headdresses worn, all the springs wobble and they come to life.
GB It’s funny that people think Lady Gaga is original.
PA Well that’s why I love hats, or headpieces I should say. They’re displays of who you are in any culture – whether you’re the priest or the chief or the wife and in a position to display who you are, it’s a crown. And we all live in our heads so much. That’s where we feel we exist and we decorate that with hats and hair and everything else to exaggerate it, to exaggerate the self.
GB So when you saw this in your book on Chinese opera, was it more beautiful? Had it been more of a camp thing until then?
PA It does all depend on context, doesn’t it? It’s an exotic thing. When I was first given this, fifteen or twenty years ago there was no internet. It was easier for things to be exotic. Now you can research things so easily on the internet, it’s almost as though we’re overfed. I look at these beautifully edited, refined and cropped photographs in this book but now we feel we have the whole story in this endless unedited online library. I don’t have the same passion for fashion imagery anymore because nothing feels as special. I think the future lies in editing all this down to something that you want to keep.
GB I guess that’s where beauty can stand out.
PA Yes. We’ve got ahead of our competitors by putting an awful lot of effort into the beauty of our imagery and the way we present the work. We’ve always photographed the hats on models, even just for sales publications. I think there’s a huge market for a specialist interest in beauty. We look at so much low common denominator imagery that says ‘come in and join us’ rather than ‘don’t you wish you could be like us.’ I’m fascinated by this idea. In the eighties, kids didn’t try to look sexy, they wanted to shake things up and upset people. Then they were sexy if they could pull that off and shake things up. That was beautiful to us. Now people want a gym body and a spray tan. It’s all very normal and it takes dedication, but is it creative? The way we look is a way of communication and that seems like a very narrow channel of communication. I’ve always been interested in looking back through history books and seeing things like the way people used to pad their bellies to look fatter so they could appear to be rich, or the wide shoulders in the eighties as a show of strength, being sewn into a dress as a way of communicating that you didn’t need to dress yourself. Ancient Egyptians used to bind their heads. We alter ourselves to tell a story and that’s why I love hats. There’s a lot of information in this Chinese headdress that I can’t even read. Maybe the knots mean eternity or the pearls stand for something. All these things would tell a story to the Chinese audience.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
PA I would say that it has to be unusual or remarkable and then good. Nature is beautiful in itself but in a person it’s related to morality. You can see a photograph of a person and say that they’re beautiful visually, as a part of nature, but when it comes to looking at the person as a whole it’s also related to their behaviour, their morals, how they fit into society. A beautiful experience has goodness attached to it.