SFOpera - Where did you get that hat?

Where did you get that hat?

I hope that you had a lovely, peaceful, and celebratory Thanksgiving and that you are staying safe and well. As we move into December, Im so excited for our upcoming digital concert Celebrating the Voices of San Francisco Opera, which airs on Friday December 4 at 7:30pm and is then available all weekend. I do hope that youll join Eun Sun Kim and me for a heartfelt celebration of the emotive power of opera with singers including Sondra Radvanovsky, Michael Fabiano, and Janai Brugger, the creative visionaries behind some of our upcoming new productions, and thought partners like Janet Napolitano. It is a celebration of the many talents of this Company. One area well be showcasing is our Costume Shop, which continues to stay at the forefront of creativity since it reopened in June. In this edition of Backstage with Matthew, were going to explore the artistry of our senior milliner, or hat-maker, Paula Wheeler and her journey learning to make authentic straw hats! 

One of the main focuses of the Costume Shop this fall has been building our new production of Così fan tutte, the second opera in our trilogy of the Mozart-da Ponte operas directed by Michael Cavanagh. The manor house that came to life in The Marriage of Figaro last year has moved forward in time to the 1930s, and has become a country club, replete with a swimming pool, badminton court, and locker rooms. One of the clearest ways we see time passing through the trilogy is costumes, and the beautiful designs of Constance Hoffman. The elegance, flow, and whimsy of 1930s leisurewear is a fabulous way into the piece and one key element of the designs is hats! Enter Senior Milliner of the Opera, Paula Wheeler! 

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

One of Constance Hoffmans designs for a chorister in Così fan tutte

You may remember Paula from my post about Tosca hats and it was great to return to the Costume Shop to talk about the new and specific needs of straw hats. Stylistically 1930s hats had risen up above the ear-covering designs of the 1920s but hadnt quite reached the more perched creations of the 1940s.Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

Changing hat styles from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s

1930s hats in opera mean that, for women, the hat has to sit comfortably over a wig and that means that the hats have to be custom made. Womens fashion hats tend to come in one size only (around 22”), but wig preparation can add a half inch to someones head, and the wig itself can add another inch and a half. So, with a wig involved, now you need a hat of 24”. (You can read more about wig preparation in an earlier edition of Backstage with Matthew). As such, hats arent available to purchase for a show like this and they must be custom made. The men are a different story, both in terms of not needing wigs to the same extent, and having more size options generally available, so those hats will be purchased. 

For the women then, Paula had to turn her attention to making straw hats for the principal singers and the chorus. 

First comes the material. Paula is mainly using Manila hemp (also known as abacá from the plant of the same name), a buff-colored fiber obtained from a plant in the Philippines that is a relative of the banana. Paula sources it from Sun Yorkos millinery suppliers in New Jersey. Shes also been experimenting with using Milan straw, which is a more rigid material, as in the hat with the rosette test hat below.

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

The Manila hemp utilized for most of the hats (above). Milan straw was used for the rosette hat below. 

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

For the hats made from Manila hemp, Paula uses two sizes — a wider version that lets more light in and makes the hat more translucent (the pink hat below), and a narrower hemp braid that, when overlapped more tightly, creates a more solid feel and heavier hat (the blue hat). Galen Till, the show supervisor, purchases the hemp pre-dyed but it can be re-dyed easily if necessary. However, since the hats are stitched with polyester thread — which is stronger than cotton thread but does not overdye well — it is best to determine braid color before assembly and use thread to match once the braid is dyed.

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

The two different widths of hemp braid used. 

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

Paula Wheeler with a pink hat using wide hemp, widely spaced to allow translucency, and a blue hat (right) much more tightly sewn with narrower hemp. 

We did have some straw hats in our new Tosca production, but they were made out of parasisal straw with the crowns and brims built separately and then assembled. These hats for Così are rather shaped by the material in the building process, giving them a more contemporary feeling appropriate for the 1930s. And here is where the real fun begins! 

It would technically be possible to make these hats on a regular sewing machine, but it is much harder to turn the corners you need in order to create the curves of a hat. As such, the Costume Shop commissioned Apparel City, a sewing machine company in San Bruno, to source a vintage chain stitch machine specifically designed for the building of hats. They found a Dresdensia,” manufactured in Germany about 100 years ago by Heinrich Grossman. Apparel City outfitted the machine with a motor, a table, a stop-and-go pedal, and a presser foot lift mechanism, to bring the machine into the 21st century — much quicker. Its a thing of beauty!

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

The Dresdenia machine in operation. 

Daniele McCartan, our Costume Director, then had a device manufactured by Rodney Armanino to keep the hemp organized on a large spool, crafted out of a lazy Susan, and slats from an old bed frame! With the hemp, the machine, and the spool, Paula was now ready to start making hats.

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

The custom spool to feed the hemp. 

There was no manual or good online tutorials for making these kinds of hats, so it became a process of learning by doing, and Paula manufactured a number of test hats to determine how to manipulate the straw braid in order to achieve the different shapes of Constances designs.

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

Tester hats!  

Different angles and different shapes are created simply by the level of tension you put on the hemp as you sew it, and the angles at which you hold the fabric. You can see in this video how Paula begins with the very top of the hat and then begins to build out the curve by angling the material. This process continues all the way through the hat, so the whole hat is one single piece— very flexible and very natural.


Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

Paula creating the top of a new hat. 

Once the hats are sewn, they are placed on hat blocks in order to fine tune the shaping. Then they are steamed to smooth out the bumps. After that, Paula removes them from the blocks, wires the edge of the brim, and uses a glue-based hat sizing spray brushed on the inside and underside to help hold the hats in shape.  A sweat band, sewn in, helps determine and stabilize the head size. You can always re-steam the hat to adjust later. One of the problems Paula has had to solve is how to shape the very large brims for these hats without brim-blocks — large wooden blocks designed specifically for work on brims. We dont have enough of those in the shop, and so Paula has had to devise a technique for shaping the brims more manually.

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

Paula with a hat that has been shaped and set. 

Paula has made around 10 hats so far for Così, and she has at least four more left to go of this style, as well as two turbans and one parasisal hat (the straw used for some of the Tosca hats).

Backstage with Matthew: Where'd you get that hat photo

The array of hats made so far for Così. 

It has been amazing to see this process come to life — the progression from design, to determining how to accomplish the design, to learning how to make straw hats using this authentic method. Its a great illustration of the ingenuity, the creativity, and the artistry of our Costume Shop that brings to life the styles of any period in history in ways that will be durable, wearable, and practical for decades to come. 

If you had a chance to purchase one of the costumes in our recent Costume Shop sale you will have a sense of the quality and durability of the work that happens in the Costume Shop. We sold some 500 costumes, bringing in around $200,000, which was an incredible expression both of support for the Opera and of fascination for the artistry of our Costume Shop. Paulas journey into the world of straw hats for Così is a perfect example of the talents that bring opera to life on our stage! 

I do hope that youll join us on December 4 for our Celebrating the Voices of San Francisco Opera event, where well celebrate these incredible talents and share with you music, conversation, and backstage explorations of this great Company that you support in such wonderful ways. 

With very warmest wishes, 

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