If These Hats Could Tawk | A Color-Coordinated Curiosity is Celebrated with a Pop-Up
SummerShow | Opening July 13 at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU
Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road
Harkens Back to a More Colorful Time on South Beach
She is remembered fondly, and vividly for her fashionable strolls up and down her Lincoln Road runway on South Beach during the
1980s and 1990s. Irene Williams’ handmade outfits were so eye-catching she would often turn heads, and this year she would have
The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU presents a summer pop-up show that borrows its name from the award-winning documentary by Eric
Smith. 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 reception at the museum on July 13 will feature a showing of the documentary film by Smith, that won numerous awards on
the film festival circuit. The filmmaker will attend the opening reception and will introduce his film, and discuss some of the items in the
show. Also on view are a series of similarly splashy hats from the personal collections of community leaders Isabel Bernfeld Anderson
and George Neary.
South Beach (circa 1997) - Irene Williams with filmmaker
Eric Smith. "I gave Irene some vintage Pierre Cardin
towels and she turned them into an entire outfit," said
Eric Smith. Irene used the towels to create a signature
head-to-toe look, including the shoes, dress, jacket, bag
and hat (the same outfit Irene modeled for her photo-
shoot with photographer Annie Leibovitz).
Like hundreds of other gay men, Eric fled the
New York City winters for quick weekend
getaways in South Beach. On one of these trips
in 1995 he met Irene Williams on Lincoln Road.
Her wild and colorful handmade outfits
immediately caught his attention. With video
camera in hand he began to realize what an
amazing individual was inside these clothes.
Over the next decade Eric documents a
marvelous journey of Irene’s outsider couture,
imparted wisdom, and the heartfelt affection
they share. Shades of Harold and Maude meets
Grey Gardens come together in this sweet,
funny, and thoroughly endearing portrait of a
rare bird in paradise and a friendship found.
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
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 over-sized, four-
wheeled briefcase that
matched her outfits.
In 2000, the renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz
asked Irene Williams to pose for her camera ―
The Annie Leibovitz portrait of Irene Williams
Photo ©Annie Leibovitz 2000 (used by permission)
PHOTO CAPTION: Irene called Eric Smith one
day and asked him - "Have you ever heard of
Annie Leibovitz? She asked me to pose for her."
Eric immediately said: "YES! DO IT! And wear the
outfit you made out of the vintage Pierre Cardin
towels I gave you!" Irene proceeded to call
Leibovitz back to say yes, but insisting that the
photographer pay her day-rate for stenography
services in exchange for agreeing to the photo-
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
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.
"A call girl with a typewriter!" is how Irene would refer to herself
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 this
travels to Miami Beach, Eric 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 worldloveproductions.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.
Film-still from the documentary by Eric Smith, showing an example of Irene's creative "outsider couture" where she fashioned a
commode-cover and rug into one of her outfits.
The pop-show remains on view through the summer, and the museum
is located in the heart of South Beach's Art Deco District that welcomes
millions of tourists year-round.
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
“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 AwardandBest 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.
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 call
305-672-5044 or visit www.jmof.fiu.edu.
Copyright 2017 © AMBIENTE MAGAZINE.
Do not reproduce without citing this source.
You Celebrating 6
• Tell me about your first encounter with Irene, and how your friendship developed?
I first met Irene in 1994. I stopped her on Lincoln Road to film her in her green outfit.
It was our first encounter (lucky to have captured on film)…. and when I realized what a smart, funny,
sharp and creative person was in these amazing clothes.. it started a 10 year friendship where would
take my video camera whenever we would go out together.
• Do you know when she moved to Miami Beach?
I'm not sure of the exact date Irene moved to Miami Beach as she was always very vague about dates.
I think it was somewhere in the late 50’s early 60’s.
• What inspired her outfits? Did she have a design or fashion background, or was it organic?
Irene’s fashion and outfits were totally borne out of INSTINCT. She had no training, and taught herself
how to sew, and often said her ideas came completely out of her head… no pattern… no formal training.
She had very little financial resources so her designs were also borne out of her limited budget and
making things from scraps or unusual fabrics.
• How did this experience of documenting her life, affect or change you?
Telling IRENE’s story definitely changed my life. It felt natural to film her and to record the amazing
person that I was seeing. Crafting her story into documentary format was a creative joy.
To be able to capture someone of such wisdom and humor and individuality…and to share it with so
many people who could be inspired by her colorful life story is a privilege. I am so honored that the
Jewish Museum of Miami is honoring her legacy with this exhibition which will continue to keep
IRENE’s memory and stories alive.