Hats are glorious. They’re a finishing touch to an outfit. They’re a sign of wealth and stature. They’re a must have accessory during the Spring Racing Carnival. Some are functional, and others not so much. They are a work of art, and they are so much fun to make! I first discovered my love of millinery when I was studying fashion and design at university. One of my subjects was millinery which I knew little of before I started. But once I was shown the art of constructing a hat, and the endless possibilities that you have in creating one, I simply fell in love with it. Hats and headwear have been around for centuries. From the Middle Ages when they were used as a form of protection, to current trends that see them on the track during horse racing events, hats have had many reincarnations over time. From royalty to aristocrats and then down to everyday people like you and me, the art of millinery and hat wearing is a trend that I certainly hope will continue for many years to come.
The history of the hat has been a long one. They became popular in Britain in the 14th and 15th centuries, however, headwear was worn long before this by our ancestors. The Pharos of Egypt used to wear glorious and elaborate head pieces as a symbol of their rank and stature in society. In ancient Greece, winners of the Olympic Games were given wreaths made of olive leaves to symbolise their importance and their achievements. In Mediterranean cultures, women wore headscarfs, veils and wraps as a sign of modesty, religion and marital status. And Royal families from all different countries have always worn crowns to display their rank in society.
The term ‘milliner’ was first used in London and was derived from the Italian city of Milan, where the finest quality straw was woven into hats. It was men who firstly began to wear hats in 1700 England. The top hat was at first a structure that was not accepted by society as it was imposing and intimidating to those surrounded by the wearer. But it was soon accepted into Victorian society when Prince Albert adopted the style in the 1850’s, and has ever since remained a stylish accessory for any man in a position of power and wealth. During this same period, woman of the same class where expected to wear hats, mainly bonnets to protect their delicate skin form the sun. Such bonnets were made from straw or cardboard, and tied with a ribbon underneath the chin to keep it in place. The size of them varied during the 19th century, as did the fabrics used to cover them, and the plumes of feathers used on some as decoration. Headwear remained popular among the upper class until the arrival of the parasol, which then provided women with another form of protection from the elements.
Moving into the 1900’s, women’s hats were still part of their ensemble, however the shape had begun to change. Boaters, trilbies and cloche styles gained popularity, and were more accommodating to the change in women’s hairstyles as time evolved. The fabrics in which they were made out of also evolved, and now included the finest silks, wools, felts and straws, and saw the embellishments adorning them include ribbons, feathers, flowers and beading. The uprising of World War 2 saw a demise in elaborate hat wearing, as they were seen as an unnecessary display of wealth during times of hardship by the majority of society. Working women found it difficult to complete their jobs while wearing a hat, and it was a nuisance to be running to and air raid shelter while trying to keep your hat in place. Barriers of etiquette became broken down and although hats were not rationed in order to boost morale, their wearing decreased.
Post WWII, and the arrival of ready to wear fashions saw the love of millinery change position. Women no longer went to their couturier or personal milliner to attain their seasonal wardrobe, but chose to purchase their outfits from high street stores. It was during the 1950’s and 1960’s, that styles such as the pillbox were popularised due the celebrity endorsements of Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn. If the First Lady of politics and the First Lady of Hollywood can wear one, then so too did many women of the decade. During the 1970’s, the art of millinery lost its way again, as fashion and trends of the decade moved away from structured headwear. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that hats once again became a popular item, and this was thanks to the royal influence of Diana, Princess of Wales. When Lady Diana Spencer joined the royal family, she had to adhere to their dress code. All official outings required a hat matching the chosen outfit, a tradition that has remand part of royal protocol for centuries. Queen Elizabeth still to this day wears a hat to most official engagements, and in her time at the throne, has reportedly worn over 5000 different styles!
In today’s modern world, hats have become more of a casual item. Women, men and children use them regularly in the warmer months to protect themselves from harsh sunlight, and during the colder months we don a hat to keep the warmth in. There is one time of year however, when hats once again take on their glorious past. Racing carnivals around the country, be it spring time in Melbourne or the autumn events in Sydney, are a plethora of all things I love abut millinery. It’s a time when women can spend hours, and large sums of money, on getting just the right headpiece to complement their outfit. Or if you’re like me, I start with my headwear and design my outfit accordingly. The Melbourne Cup Carnival is Australia’s premier racing event, and the grandest of opportunities to show off all that is wonderful about fashion and millinery. In recent years, styles have changed from large, bold and embellished hats, to smaller and more refined fascinators, and at this year’s carnival, many women sported headbands with subtle detailing.
I was fortunate enough to inherit some stunning pieces of millinery from my Great Aunt a few years back, and chose this racing carnival to bring them out of the tissue paper and let them see light again. An assortment of colours and styles they were, including red felt in a riding style, soft pink silks with ruffles, pale green feathers and veiling, peach inspired pillboxes and navy florals. These hats have a history of their own to tell. My Great Aunt was a woman of immense style and grace, and being an important member of her local community, always sought to dress in her finest. The labels of these hat makers date back to the 1950’s, and include Mr James of Sydney and Harbig (Melbourne-New York-Paris). Unfortunately when trying to research these labels, I have come to a dead end. If anyone has any information on the history of these milliners, I would love to hear about it!
From studying millinery myself, I have made a number of hats over the years for myself and for some stylish clients. I learnt to craft the crown and brim of a hat on traditional wooden hat blocks, using wool and canvas. I’ve also created pieces using wire, sinamay and straw, and most recently used leather to embellish these works of art. Veiling too is one of my favourite trims to use, and the plume of an ostrich or peacock feather can never go astray. I’ve worn hats to every race day I’ve ever attended, some large, some small, depending on what the season calls for. I’m also known to wear a stylish headpiece for a wedding or simular significant event. And during the cooler months of the year, I’ll always have my trusty red felt cloche not too far away!
So next time you see a stylish hat perched on top of most likely a very stylish woman, take some time to appreciate it. The art of millinery hold such a significant history and entails a very creative and skilled mind to construct one. They are a symbol of class, status, season and style. They can be practical or purely visionary. They can be coloured, neutral, and everything in between. They can be fun, sassy, silly and downright glorious. Hats are amazing, and I for one will also be in love with them!
Love Always, Anastacia Rose xx