The Exciting Straw Hat Museum of Domzale
My article in Atlas Obscura covers the wonders of the underwhelming-sounding, but truly fascinating Straw Hat Museum of Domzale, and you can check it out here. But the "director's cut" of the article appears below! Get your hats on!
Just how exciting can a museum of straw hats really be? Okay, let's admit it: the idea of visiting a “straw hat museum” sounds like the punchline of a joke about the most boring museum on the planet. And for that reason, with a bit of hipster irony in mind, it just might be fun to go visit, right? That's what I was thinking, in my foolishness, when I first heard about the Straw Hat Museum in Domžale. But then I actually visited it. How wrong I was.
The tiny museum is not just an exhibition about making straw hats, with a few samples on display. Rather, it offers a glimpse of the once-glorious past of the town of Domžale. I was totally flabbergasted to learn that Domžale is, quite literally, the world's center for making straw hats. That might sound like a dubious superlative but think back in time. Prior to the Second World War, all men wore hats when outdoors, as part of appropriate public attire. In warm weather or when doing labor, straw hats were preferred, as they are light and airy and still protect you from the sun. So, this was no small industry, since most of the world's population wore straw hats at one time or another.
Domžale began as a tiny village with access to fields of wheat, the straw from which was used to produce hats and baskets and other dry Goods. The straw was set aside and dried. In foul weather or winter months, local families would braid the straw together into usable threads, called butarice (a word which I’d heard often from my mother-in-law…it’s slang for “idiots”) which could then be sewn in the hats. These woven braids were either used at home, to prepare finished products or were sold to factories that made them. In the late 19th century, some of the wealthier Hapsburg mercantile families, mostly of Austrian or German descent, moved to Domžale and found wives there, then set up factories for making straw hats. Circa 1900, there were 25 straw hat factories of varying size in tiny Domžale, with around 1000 people employed. This was out of a town population of just 1126 souls (circa 1856) that rose to 2156 by 1920. Those factories produced around a million straw hats a year! Subsidiary factories opened in Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, Florence and even as far away as New York. That’s right…the New York branch was a subsidiary of the main headquarters in Domžale, Slovenia. In fact, 390 residents of Domžale moved to America, headhunted because of their expertise in, you guessed it, straw hat making. Many of the best straw hat makers were women, and there are photos of Domžale ladies teaching a factory full of Americans how to sew butarice. Will wonders never cease?
The tradition of straw hats dates back to early Renaissance Florence, but a fresco in a church near Domžale, dated 1761, shows that straw hats were a thing around these parts in the Early Modern period.
The last factory, Univerzale, closed down in 2003, after 130 years in business. Now it is just a boutique art form practiced by a few enthusiastic locals. What truly astonished me was the fact that this small town has such a rich history of truly international imports. Straw hats were not exotic or oddball prior to the First World War, when hats were absolutely standard on the heads European and North American men. Sometimes the smallest and humblest of towns, in surprising locations, can have an impact on world history.
This year, 2019, I'm delighted to be the guest ambassador at the annual Straw Hat Festival on June 8. A straw hat will be fitted upon my head (I’m afraid my nose is too big for it to look good, but I’ll give it a shot). It's an honor to be a part of this incredibly rich tradition that not enough locals know about or take sufficient pride in. This is something to be incredibly proud of, but the Slovenian habit of humility (which is generally a plus) means that's sometimes an American has to come visit and sing the praises of local triumph. I'm delighted to do so. Especially when sporting my new straw hat.