"To me, headwear is the most important item of wearing apparel," Chico says. "The head is the most visual part of the body, but it's also the seat of the brain, the mind and the emotions. Virtually every culture in the world has adapted items important to the culture for headwear." It's the endless search to uncover the symbolism inherent in what we cover our heads with that keeps Chico on her toes.
Standing in her Greenwood Village living room amid a jungle of wrapped and catalogued treasures, Chico is preparing a fraction of her collection for an exhibit opening Friday at the Curtis Arts and Humanities Center. "I'm like a small museum," she says of the mess. But there's a modicum of method to her madness--on closer observation, one notes that each hat is stored accompanied by meticulous documentation. "You have to know why you're a little crazy," Chico admits.
Boston-bred, she first glommed on to the charms of the chapeau while traveling in Spain "back in the middle ages--from 1953 to 1957." During two years in which Chico lived and worked in Madrid, she discovered the Rastro, arguably the greatest flea market in Europe at that time. "It was a golden age for antiques," Chico recalls. "In the '50s, few outsiders had been there because of the Franco regime." Over time, she befriended some antique dealers there, picking up a trio of Japanese samurai helmets--one nearly 500 years old--along the way. Call it Kismet, or whatever: Chico's been acquiring headwear all over the world ever since, and what she hasn't procured on her own she's gotten from her four grown, globe-trotting kids, who barter, cadge and cajole millinery bounty for Mom wherever they go.
Compact, plainly dressed and slightly owlish, Chico, who still wears her hair in the same chignon she says was inspired by the elegant Spanish ladies of the 1950s, doesn't wear a hat herself but is never at a loss for words when it comes to headgear. She can expound on the evolution of bicycle helmets and then switch mid-sentence to discuss the hat's relationship to architecture. She flashes photos showing how African hats might emulate thatched huts and explains how a bishop's miter apes the soaring curvature of a Gothic arch. Twirling an embroidered Vietnamese sunshade woven from straw, she tells how women will hide messages in the hats that can be read only when the sun hits them at a certain angle. Then she breaks into a Sumatran folk tale about the genesis of a two-cornered cap whose shape is patterned after water buffalo horns.
Stories beget stories, and one hat leads to another. And while she's no stranger to the ropes of scholarly research, Chico contends that she sometimes gets her own ideas about what hats mean. When that happens, she's likely to run with it. "My imagination goes laterally," she says. "What is methodology, after all? I'm not copying, I'm intuiting." And she's not likely to put a lid on it.
Headwear...Folk Art and Fine Art, August 8-29, Curtis Arts & Humanities Center, 2349 East Orchard Road, Greenwood Village, 797-1779. Opening reception 6:30 p.m. August 8. Lecture 7 p.m. August 20.