The story of the Venetian “baretèra”, from flowers for brides to Panamas from Ecuador
Venice – Very rarely have I found myself interviewing artisans that do not have, or haven’t stored away, old photos that tell the story of the beginning and the evolution of their business. The lacquered closets of the small and delightful milliner atelier of Giuliana Longo – in Calle del Lovo, in Venice – do not have hidden drawers in which to find black and white nostalgic images of the good old times. “I never really liked photographs – says Giuliana – However beautiful or well made, they never truly depict reality”.
“Of all the hats I made, all the flowers I have sewn, and all the dresses I have decorated and have seen walk out of this door, I mostly remember the textiles and the folds that swayed and sculpted the body of the clients”.
“Clothes don’t move in pictures, do they?”
Giuliana Longo speaks of dresses because her famous hat shop – where the more sophisticated go to supply on Panama hats from Ecuador and stylish headdresses – initially was opened as a wedding dress atelier by her grandmother Teresa and her mother Amelia. “We’ve been here since 1969 – she tells us – and my duty, as a young girl, was to make satin flowers for bouquets, dresses, hairdos and bridal veils”.
There were no bridal shops at the time. Dressmakers and seamstresses tailored the dresses. “We made very many in this shop; I was the one who made the flowers”.
At a certain point, though, something changed: “One day I found myself preparing one hundred daisies for a young bride from Chioggia – she tells us – After I finished the job, I put my utensils down and didn’t want to see any more flowers for a while. I had reached my limit”.
Giuliana can only tell us about this story because she has no pictures of that beautiful daisy covered dress. “But it’s better this way, don’t you think? When you have no pictures to show you concentrate on the voice, on the story, on the imagination of who’s telling the story”, she says again.
“However, I do have one regret – she admits – I regret not taking the picture of an enormous castle-shaped hat that my mother made for a Carnevale a long time ago. It only lasted a couple of hours in the shop’s window display: a German tourist then bought it and now I only have it in my memory”.
From the late ‘70s, Giuliana Longo has been the Venetian artisan hatter par excellence. She was began and defines herself as a modista (milliner), the Italian word that defines who makes and sells female headwear. For over 20 years, though, she sides her elegant and whimsical summer and winter hat production for women (that would easily hypnotize any royal family) with that of hats for men also. Panama and gondolier hats, to be precise, which in the meantime have both become unisex styles. In the case of gondoliers, as we know, the hat choice has come to affect two women: Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto that I have written about here.
“In the ‘90s I wanted to suggest a new look for gondoliers – she explains – I didn’t like the hats they wore because they didn’t bring out their features or their physique and the ribbons were way too dark. They didn’t bring justice to their smiles”. Giuliana, coming from a family of painters, already had an idea of tone adjustment in mind: “Color can both bring and take depth away – she says – So I began to experiment with satin ribbons, with Venetian red and electric blue, I put them on display and the first gondoliers showed up”.
In just a few years’ time, Giuliana Longo – member of the “El Felze” cultural association – became the point of reference for the famous gondolier hats − water, wind and weather resistant they can hold up to three years. In the summertime, gondoliers wear the ones made out of woven straw and a satin ribbon that matches the gondola’s “parecio” (decoration); in the winter, they use the ones made of black cloth with a bow.
Giuliana Longo was born in Campo Manin, just a few steps away from her historic boutique-workshop in Calle del Lovo, but she’s been living in Marghera for a while now: “Every time I catch the waterbus to go back home, at the Rialto waterbus stop, my heart fills with joy when I see all those gondoliers with my hats. How could I be happier?”
An important part of Giuliana’s satisfaction comes from the work of Valentina (in the photo), her faithful and very good assistant with “magic hands”. In a video, published on our Facebook page, we see her operate on the decorations for a black and green ribboned gondolier hat. Why black and green? “Because they are the colors of calcio Venezia – Giuliana answers with pride – We are preparing hats with the colors of our soccer teams: that way te gondoliers can choose their favorite!”
Giuliana, in these days, is not in Venice. He has taken a flight for Ecuador, on the other side of the world. She spends a month every year travelling in the areas of Cuenca – a UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site – and Montecristi (on the Pacific), historic and legendary home of hat weaving.
These are the two areas of Ecuador where Giuliana goes to choose the Panamas that are so beloved by the Venetians and by many celebrities too. “I these years I studied how local artisans work on shapes and molds. I’ve seen them dry their Panamas in the sun and followed every step of their work: what comes out are textiles that are as light as feathers“.
I still am amazed at the idea that it is actual humans that make them.
Only men work in Montecristi. Their hands are smooth and fine with thumbs that have very long nails to help cut the already slender palm strings for the hats; in Cuenca it is women that work instead, grouped into cooperatives that aim towards financial independence and women’s empowerment. “The women’s hands are very stressed by all the manual and domestic work. Their hands are thicker and rougher than those of the men from Montecristi – Giuliana explains – it’s interesting to see how the final product changes with different hands”.
Every Panama I sell comes from a story of men, culture and labor. It’s a story I like to tell to those who decide to buy a hat like this, an actual product of man’s intellect and refined abilities.
To read more on Giuliana’s travels in Ecuador, click here.
The windows where Giuliana and Valentina work every day – with threads of satin, silk, and organza; buttons, pins, and needles; and hats, mirrors and veils – give on Campo San Salvador, in Venice.
Right outside there is the busy coming and going of people and tourists, while inside there is the calm and warmth of an old passion that is able to keep itself fresh and full of life.
These are the places where you can breathe in the strength of the dedication, love and experience.
These feelings cannot be bought. They can only be built and grown in order to be cherished, told and passed on.
Even without photographs.