Donning hats in honor of millinery stylist Mme. Paulette

Cards for the opening of Mme. Paulette's millinery exhibit at the Palais Galliera read: ``Ladies are `invited' to wear a hat in homage to the late great creator.'' They say that blue-blooded Bostonians don't buy hats -- they have hats. My blood is not pure indigo, but I too have A HAT: an antiquated affair that spends most of its time in mothballs. After much teetering on a ladder I unearthed this marvel and set off on the 32 Bus for the beautiful little Galliera Museum. I had tried to camouflage the overpowering odor of mothballs with generous lashings of perfume, but although the No. 32 was crowded, I had a little oasis entirely to myself while fellow passengers snatched out their handkerchiefs.

Same reaction at the museum as I strolled through the salons admiring all the frippery, the supreme talent and imagination of this charming designer, who was the top milliner in Paris for almost half a century until her death last September at the age of 84. My thoughts drifted back to the days when it was akin to nudism to appear in public without a hat. I felt a sense of nostalgia for all the elegance that hair stylists have more or less managed to abolish in their eternal war with the millinery designer.

Yet Paulette, who in private life was the socialite Mme. Jacques de la Bruy`ere, basically understood this innate conflict between hats and hair, and her enchanting little ``Bibis'' -- often consisting of nothing more than a wisp of veiling with a bow, a rose, or feather -- obviously did not turn Madame's hairdo into the living replica of a pancake.

During the World War II occupation of Paris, Mme. Paulette invented the ``bicycle hat.'' With public transportation practically at a standstill, or at least totally erratic, many women pedaled around town on rickety old bikes. The winter winds and rain rent havoc with the hairstyles of that era, the towering pompadours propped up over woolly ``rats'' or teased lock by lock into haystack shapes. One could even conceal hair curlers under many of those lofty creations.

Paulette lived through the times with an uncanny understanding of taste and tempo combined with practicality. She created hats for many of the crowned heads of Europe; for France's first ladies: Mme. Georges Pompidou and Mme. Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing; for Rose Kennedy and Rita Hayworth; for Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The list is endless. Yet this extraordinary woman could make a fluted mob cap of cheap nylon look so becoming that young factory workers in food processing plants were delighted to wear the little bonnets.

Paulette's business acumen was another rare attribute. It is certainly uncommon for top creative talent to evince even the foggiest notion about the commercial aspect of running a company. The late Balenciaga never asked or cared what anything cost. It sufficed that a fabric was beautiful and pleased him. Yves Saint Laurent is given free rein by his partner and business manager, Pierre Berge. While Mme. Paulette's collections featured up to 150 new models each season, most were individually adapted for each private client. The creator was always totally aware of the labor costs, materials, and other aspects involved in concocting each chef-d'oeuvre.

Another admiring guest in an outmoded hat attended the opening of this exposition at the Palais Galliera. The beautiful young girl had borrowed a whimsical adaption of Davy Crockett's coonskin cap from one of the epic collections back in the late 1940s. Pauline Marchand is the granddaughter of the late Mme. Paulette and she, at least, did not smell of mothballs.

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