Friday, September 16th, 2011

How To Make A Dowager Countess Hat

The premiere of the second season of "Downton Abbey" airs on Saturday Sunday night—for British television viewers. Unfortunately, those of us on the other side of the pond have to wait for broadcast. In the meantime, here's a little project you might want to work on in anticipation, so that you will be properly attired when you do finally get to see it. Viewing parties, anyone? Some of you might want to don something similar to the gorgeous early feminist harem pants as modeled by Sybil—they're like pajama pants only totally not. I know exactly what I'm wearing: a purple hat like the Dowager Countess's.

I do not know what you call a hat like the purple hat worn by the Dowager Countess. As far as I can tell, someone in the know might call it a turban or a toque or some combination of the two. All I know is that it is some hat. It's the kind of hat that makes you sit up and take notice.

This purple hat of the Dowager Countess's, who is played not incidentally by Maggie Smith (Julian Fellowes wrote the part with her in mind), is the kind of hat that makes you spend ages online analyzing screen shots. Among your many questions, the most pressing will be: just what are those purple lumps adorning the front of that hat? This hat is not so much bejeweled by those tumerous-looking lumps as diseased by them. They don't look as if they've been affixed to the hat; they look as if they've grown there. This is an arresting hat, exquisite and frightening. And very, very funny. Like Maggie Smith in the role.

As they say in that old chestnut about dresses, you have to wear the hat or the hat wears you. Particularly this hat. It's like the lines Fellowes has given the Dowager Countess—they're amusing, yes, but it's the way Smith says them that makes them really work. In the hat, Smith looks imperious and daunting, a force to be reckoned with. And also slightly loony. In my knock-off version, I look by turns constipated, startled and downright batshit insane. But I'm still young. Ish. I still have time to develop my imperial manner.

Every woman, or at least every woman who wishes to one day achieve the Dowager's impressive level of self-assurance (although some might call it arrogance), needs to learn to carry off a hat like this. So here is how to make your own. You know, for practice.

1. For the base of the hat, we scored a child-sized costume pirate hat purchased for two bucks. With a little tweaking, the high front of this hat will roughly approximate the shape and size of the Dowager's turban/toque. We found ours at the fabric store but these are widely available on Amazon or at dollar stores everywhere.

2. Next, pile a bunch off cotton batting on top, attempting to build up one end of the hat slightly higher than the other. This will probably fail but give it your best shot.

3 Then, take a swath of darkish purple cloth—ours is a hideous polyester but the Dowager's was probably silk or somesuch—and drape it over the stuffed pirate hat. Making sure to leave enough fabric to tuck underneath the hat, cut it out in a large circle shape.

4. Next, pull the fabric tight around the surface of the stuffed hat. Then turn the whole thing over upside down and hot-glue the fabric section by the section to the inside rim of the hat.

5. Now comes the fun part. Still using the hot-glue gun, begin to affix the periwinkles to the front of the hat, attempting to approximate the naturalistic arrangement of them on the Dowager's. Oh. The periwinkles. I forgot to mention that you must go to the beach and collect a bunch of periwinkle shells. And then, if they are not the correct shades of purple, pink and white, as mine were not—our particular stretch of ocean appears to favor periwinkles in shades of blue—you must wash them and dry them and paint them. This takes ten to twelve hours, tops, counting collecting time and paint drying time, of course. (If you don't live near a beach that features periwinkles, you can try clam shells. If you look closely, you might be able to see we stuck a few on our version. And if you don't live near a beach at all, you could try rocks and pebbles. Or, I don't know, lumps of purple felt. Feel free to improvise here.)

6. Lastly, wrap a narrow length of black netting around the entire brim of the hat and drape the ends artfully over the top. When you're pleased with the effect, hot-glue the netting in place.

Et voila! Now you get to go stand in front of a mirror, tilt your head to one side, perch the hat on top of it and stare disdainfully at yourself. Next, try to look autocratic. Domineering. Haughty. Magisterial. Condescending. Overbearing. Well done! The thesaurus doesn't include "high-hat" with all those words for nothing.

Related: After "Downton Abbey": 10 British Costume Dramas on Netflix Instant

Stephany Aulenback lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and two children. She blogs at Crooked House.

20 Comments / Post A Comment

C_Webb (#855)

I have no words for the amazingness that is this. (Except these.)

Maud Newton (#600)

Oh, Stephany Aulenback, you have outdone yourself!

@Maud Newton mwah!

@SarahHeartburn wow, that would've saved us a lot of trouble. Thanks for sharing that.

Oh. My. Wow. This is amazing! Step 1 is so brilliant – I would never have thought of this, and been entirely frozen at the start.

illcommunication (#13,090)

This is awesome and the final picture is just a perfect post-credits treat.

Annie K. (#3,563)

A boon to all mankind, this is. I think one problem with looking like a dowager countess is, Americans don't have that neck that lines up straight with the backbone. I keep practicing in front of the mirror but I just can't do it.

@Annie K. you are so right. and unfortunately, my neck juts out of my backbone at practically a 90 degree angle.

Anna Jayne@twitter (#11,365)

I finally started watching DA on Wednesday and as I was watching Episode 3 last night, I was totally pondering that hat!! I love this tutorial.

It's airing on Sunday, thank god, cos what with Doctor Who being as gripping as it is I don't think I'd even make it through Saturday night without a panic attack of excitement.

(But the tutorial is ace!)

Carrie Frye (#9,863)

@Rachel Ball@twitter Ah thanks, Rachel — fixed!

wamelohe (#84,323)

I am all a-twitter at finding this website a week ago. What were dreary days at my "recession job" now pass with great hilarity as I ponder the aplomb of such How-to articles as these. Thank you dearest ladies of The Awl!

My mother had a hat somewhat like this, which I donned on the particularly grueling day we moved Mum and her 700 boxes from our childhood home into a Sassy Widow's Condo. Lavender with midnight blue globs of something, purple net over wilted purple flowers…it itched and made my head sweat but was well worth it in the laughter it provided, if only to me. And yes, it does help to wear it with one's neck in line with one's backbone, and a British stiff upper lip as well.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

So, what's the deal here? Are we approaching some Hairpin/Awl singularity? Because if The Hairpin is the lady site and The Awl is the man site, you can't be putting up "How to make a fancy British lady hat" and "Here's something about Sarah Jessica Parker" on no man site.

Maud Newton (#600)

@Ham_Snadwich Did The Awl characterize itself as a "man site"? All this time I thought it was just a people site…

We are open to people of all and no genitalia and identification. :)

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@Maud Newton It's possible I don't understand the difference between The Awl and The Hairpin then.

I feel strongly that a lot of men would look really good in this hat.

scojo (#17,876)

you can get a Downton Abbey season pass RIGHT NOW on British iTunes. £13.99.

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