What is the symbolism of the hats in "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield?

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The central hat that it is well worth focusing on is the hat that Laura's mother uses to distract her from her tirade about why the garden party should be cancelled. As Laura comes in to her mother's room and launches into her speech as to why the workman's death necessitates the cancelling of the garden party, her mother tries to distract her by placing a new hat on her head and urging her to look at herself:

"Darling!" Mrs. Sheridan got up and ame over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. "My child!" said her mother, "the hat is yours. It's made for you. It's much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!" And she held up her hand-mirror.

It is when Laura comes to look at herself and to see the young, sophisticated and beautiful lady that she is becoming that she forgets all about the plight of the dead workman and his family. Their fate becomes "blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper." The hat therefore symbolically represents the vanity of the rich, the materialism of the upper classes. It is of course this that Laura realises is so meaningless when she looks at the corpse of Mr. Scott at the end of the story. Laura starts off thinking that all men are equal, and the hat is the means to which her mother makes her realise that, thanks to the class system, all men are definitely not equal.

Read the study guide:
The Garden Party: And Other Stories

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