“If These Hats Could Tawk” “Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road” Harkens Backto a More Colorful Time on South Beach
MIAMI BEACH ― She is remembered fondly – and vividly – for her fashionable strolls up and down her Lincoln Road runway during the 1980s and 1990s. Irene Williams’ handmade outfits were so eye-catching she would often turn heads, and this year she would have turned 100. The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU presents a summer pop-up show that borrows its name from the award-winning documentary by Eric Smith, Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road. The installation features 33 of Irene’s original handcrafted hats, historic photos and her letters that together illustrate the spirited story of one of South Beach’s most beloved characters. All of the objects on view were willed to filmmaker/designer Eric Smith and have been donated to the museum’s permanent collection. The opening on July 13 will feature a showing of the documentary film by Smith, that won numerous awards on the film festival circuit. Also on view are a series of similarly splashy hats on loan from the personal collections of community leader Isabel Bernfeld Anderson, and preservationist/tourism guru George Neary.
Irene Williams was called “Queen of Lincoln Road” because she walked back and forth every day from one end of the pedestrian mall (where she lived), to the other end (where her stenographer’s office was located) for over 40 years from the 1960s until 2001 (she passed in 2004). Irene created her outsider couture from unconventional materials such as fake-fur toilet seat covers, bath mats, and towels. She made a fashion statement every day of her life on the streets of South Beach, decked out in her own creations, including more than 100 handmade hats and carefully coordinated ensembles. Passersby would stop in their tracks to take in the sight of her head-to-toe looks: she created furry covers for her shoes, leggings, mini-skirts, knitted tops, hats, earrings, necklaces and buttons. Bright lavender, chartreuse, fuchsia, lemon-yellow and candy-pink were the norm. Irene even made covers for her oversized, four-wheeled briefcase that matched her outfits.
In the late 1960s Orson Welles hired her stenography services while he was in town (Irene often referred to herself as “a call girl with a typewriter”). Before computers, business people needed stenography services and “snowbirds” like Mr. Welles would hire Irene as a temporary secretary to handle their business correspondence while they stayed in South Beach for the winter. She delighted locals, tourists, and even some celebrities. During the early 1990s, Gianni Versace once stopped Irene to compliment her on the looks she created. In 2000, she posed for renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz.
In 1994, Irene was befriended by Eric Smith, a New York designer who would eventually capture her on film in his
award-winning documentary, Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road. Like many gay men from New York during the 1990s, Smith would regularly escape the harsh winters for getaways to South Beach which was becoming world famous at the time as a gay destination. During one of his travels to Miami Beach, Smith spotted Irene and was captivated.
He soon developed a rapport that sparked a ten-year project of filming and interviewing Irene to preserve her legacy. “Our initial meeting felt like kismet, given my endless fascination for eccentric older ladies,” said Smith. “I was wowed by this tiny lady who stood just a little over four feet tall and always dressed herself impeccably. The throngs of tourists who flocked to Lincoln Road mall provided Irene with an ideal opportunity to showcase her creativity and individualism, and she became a self-described tourist attraction.”
View photos and press about the film at worldloveprodcutions.com/irene.
“She was a survivor who found creative ways to make life thrive. I believe her legacy encourages us to be independently true to our nature, to find and explore our own passion and creativity. I am thrilled that the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU will celebrate Irene’s centennial and will preserve her fashion creations and memorabilia in its permanent collection,” adds Smith.
The exhibition remains on view through November 5 and is sponsored by Danny and Merle Weiss, Isabel Bernfeld Anderson, and Pauline Winick - local philanthropists who along with so many South Beach pioneers also admired Irene Williams’ daily fashion statements on Lincoln Road. “Our museum’s collection of more than 100,000 items includes a treasure trove that celebrates the heart and soul of Miami Beach,” said Nancy Doyle Cohen, the Membership and Programming Director for the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. “When Eric Smith came to us with his donation of Irene Williams’ hats and memorabilia, we realized that her centennial was cause for celebration. This summer pop-up show honors the individualism and character of the personalities that define South Beach’s enduring spirit and tenacity.”
Smith spent ten years interviewing Williams with a hand-held camera, and the friendship and affection shared between the two is evident in this film that has been likened to Harold and Maude Meets Grey Gardens.
The film was screened at more than 100 film festivals worldwide and won 12 awards (including the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Audience Award and Best Short, Planet Out’s Best Documentary, the Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Film Festival’s Jury Award for Best Short Documentary, the Fire Island Film & Video Festival’s Audience Award and Best Documentary, and more).
The film will be shown at the opening reception of the pop-up show, Thursday, July 13 at 7:00 p.m. Watch clips from the film at vimeo.com/218967266.
In 2000, Irene Williams posed for renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz ―
Photograph ©Annie Leibovitz 2000 (used by permission)
About the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU:
The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU serves as a major cultural attraction and source of information for a wide audience of residents, tourists, students and scholars of all ages and backgrounds from throughout the state, nation, and the world. Located in a former synagogue that housed Miami Beach's first Jewish congregation, the museum's restored 1936 Art Deco building and 1929 original synagogue are both on the National Register of Historic Places. The 301 building features nearly 80 stained glass windows, a copper dome, marble bimah and many Art Deco features including chandeliers and sconces. The Jewish Museum of Florida is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and holidays. Admission: Adults $6; Seniors $5; Families $12; Members and children under 6 always free; Saturdays-Free. For more information, please call 305-672-5044 or visit jmof.fiu.edu.
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