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'You Can Do Amazing Things With Pom-Poms If You're Cunning'

Photograph: PhotoVogue
Photograph: PhotoVogue

Consider the pom-pom, that puckish ball of fluff. It is foolish. It is fetching. It has no reason to exist. It is everywhere.

New York Knicks caps . Ski caps . Those universal winter hats one sees in Chicago, New York, Toronto, Beijing, Machu Picchu and the nippier regions of Mars. It's such a pervasive ornament that by now it's nearly invisible.

So why? And how? And who, when and where?

We don't know. But we tried.

"The first pom-pom I've found was used in the 1630s and made out of feathers," says Michelle Finamore, a curator of fashion arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston . The pom-pom generally has had "very little significance and was just a decorative element,” she says. "It's kind of funny how these things stick out over time.”

Hold on -- this fluff ball has gone to war.

"I know that pom-poms were used on military hats," says Kristina Haugland, an associate curator for costumes and textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art , who stresses that pom-poms are not part of her field of research. "They were used to distinguish who was who on the battlefield." Finamore agrees, noting that the red pom-pom is "a development of the Napoleonic era. It looks like his crew was wearing it at Trafalgar, and it was eventually adopted by the whole French Navy ." The word is believed to derive from the French pompon, an ornamental tuft.

The pom-pom then made its way back to civilian life. "By the 1890s, you see women wearing little Tam o' Shanters for skating uniforms," says Finamore. "And in the late 19th century you also see the sailor suit adopted for young boys with a matching cap." She cites 19th-century American college athletes , too, and high-fashion hats by the designer Elsa Schiaparelli . About 40 years ago, the pom-pom established itself as a standard design element. "The knitted caps with pom-poms came with the craft revival in the '70s," says Finamore, "and that knitting craze contributed to the popularity of the caps we see a lot of now."

Piers Atkinson , the British bespoke milliner whose hats are worn by Kate Moss and Lady Gaga, can’t imagine that the pom-pom ever had a practical purpose. "They use up quite a lot of wool, sometimes a whole ball of it,” he says. “And as any knitter will tell you, good wool is expensive." He nods at Finamore's cultural analysis. "When I was a child in the '70s, everybody had pom-poms and knitwear," he says, and now they're a regular part of his collections. "You can do amazing things with pom-poms if you're cunning.”

It's like a lot of fashion, says Haugland. "We think it looks normal, and then you get some perspective on it,” she says. "And then you think: That looks really silly."

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