What is the symbolism of the hats in "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield?
Hats symbolize the gulf between the Sheridans, the affluent middle class family giving the garden party, and the working class people they hire and who live in poverty nearby them. Hats represent the world of pleasures and luxuries that attract Laura and her cohort and distract their attention from the poor.
In this story, the death of a workman who lives nearby occurs on the day of the family's garden party. Laura, a daughter who had previously felt there is no difference between the classes, wants the family to cancel the party out of deference to the dead man. Her mother pooh-poohs that idea as "extravagant," saying there's no need to inconvenience themselves and nobody would expect it. She distracts Laura by giving her her own hat. But Laura is still resisting carrying on with the party--until she sees herself in the mirror, wearing the hat:
"I don't understand," said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon.
When her concern that it might be callous to go ahead with the party resurfaces, she determines to ask her brother his opinion. But when he tells her she looks "splendid" in her hat and says, "What an absolutely topping hat!," she changes her mind about asking him.
In the end the party goes forward, but afterwards, Mrs. Sheridan sends Laura to the dead man's working class hovel with a great basket of leftovers for his family. Laura is suddenly ashamed to be showing up in showy, frivolous, expensive hat. She says to his family members, "Forgive my hat."
Mansfield's point is that class differences are built on an accumulation of small privileges, such as easy access to pastries, hothouse flowers, and fine hats. Class differences won't go away, because those with privileges enjoy their luxuries too much. Laura is so pleased to have a beautiful hat and to be complimented on it that she allows herself to forget about the plight of the less fortunate. Only when confronted with the poor directly does she feel embarrassed about her frivolous hat, but we can be sure that once she gets home and around her own people, all her twinges of conscience will be smoothed away, probably with more new hats.
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.