Joan Silver’s hat is black, domed, and so big it hits the wearer’s shoulders. Its only decoration is a two-inch-wide vertical slit up the back. There’s also a smaller, almost invisible horizontal slit in front to see through; still, says Silver, “when you put it on, you’re pretty disoriented.”

Silver, a Chicago artist, originally designed the hat for a performance artist who wanted to disorient his audience as well. He shaved his head so that the back of it–just pink flesh showing through the slit–would seem to be his face. Silver designed the hat so it could be worn, but she thinks of it more as sculpture: “It doesn’t require a presence inside.”

Chicagoan Barbara Zaretsky also uses a lot of black in the hats she makes, but you’d never mistake her work for Silver’s. One of her recent favorites is a small round canvas cap painted black with white triangles. While Zaretsky thinks of her hats as works of art, she also designs them to be worn, and she’s sold dozens of her creations since she started making them three years ago. “I like the idea of people seeing something that says “That expresses me,’ and then being able to buy it and wear it and keep expressing themselves.”

Silver’s black dome and Zaretsky’s black-and-white geometric are both part of “Hats, Helmets, Headgear,” currently on display at the Textile Arts Centre, a wearable-art gallery on Diversey. The 23 hats in the show, seven of them by Chicago artists, were chosen from about 50 submissions by California artist Candace Kling, who’s known for the hats she makes out of folded cloth and ribbon. Kling tried to choose the best examples of a wide range of hats, from the outlandish to the conservative. “It didn’t have to be far out to please me,” she says, “but it had to have that little X factor that makes it sing.”

The result is a strange collection. There are hats made out of yarn, leather, wood, and even needlepoint net. Brigid Finucane’s “Helmet for the Goddess” looks like rusty metal, but it’s really fusible garment interfacing that she dipped in glue, dried with heat, and painted. On Elizabeth Salvia’s “Fish Hat,” the fish aren’t attached to the hat; they float inside netting that runs around the rim. The heads of more fish pop through the blue crown as if they’re jumping out of water.

Kling looked for originality and polish in the hats she chose, but she let the artists determine the function. Stephanie Nadolski, whose hat “Summer’s Reliquary” was made by molding paper pulp over an old straw hat, cared more about making paper into a three-dimensional shape than about whether or not the hat would be usable. Her hat, displayed in a Lucite box, would be ruined if it got wet. If Silver’s hat is sculpture, Nadolski’s is nostalgia.

Finucane says her “Helmet for the Goddess” is meant as a sort of special-occasion hat, although she didn’t necessarily design it to be worn. “A lot of wearable art is ritual or ceremonial. When it’s on, the wearer starts occupying a different state of mind.”

Kim Laurel–who made “Poisson Tam,” a black velvet beret covered with green fish–originally considered making crowns instead of berets, but then decided to let the function determine the form. “I thought, well, they’re hats, and I’d like to see someone be able to wear them.”

For Elizabeth Salvia, making her fish hat wearable was part of the challenge. “You’ve got this thing and you want it to function a certain way–so you think, how far can I go with this and still have it work?”

Kling says the hats in this exhibit serve the same function as the clothes in the back of the closet that never get worn. “It gives me a good feeling to know they could be worn. You can look at them and daydream about when you might wear them and where you might wear them, but you never really have to. They create a fantasy.”

What determines how well that fantasy works, says Salvia, is how well the artist carries out his or her intention. Some hats, like some clothes, “aren’t meant to be worn for a long period of time. Clothes for theater are made differently than regular clothes.” Some of the hats are pure theater. Others are more like regular clothes.

“Hats, Helmets, Headgear” runs through December 22. The Textile Arts Centre, 916 W. Diversey, is open noon to 5 Tuesday through Friday, and 10 to 5 Saturday. Call 929-5655 for more info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Art Wise.