Do you wear hats? Where do you wear them? At a royal wedding? a funeral? the Easter Parade? Ask the members of the Milliners Guild and they’ll regale you with many more potential occasions. Their hats not only make an emphatic fashion statement, they reveal the personality of the wearer and express the artistry and fantasy of the maker.
Twenty-five milliners participated in “One Block Many Milliners,” a special event celebrating their talents and hatmaking skills. The ephemeral exhibit was held at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology on April 5.
The show had its genesis 17 years ago. At the time, Linda Ashton was a student at FIT. She remembers wondering what kinds of hats the imaginations of different milliners would produce if they all started with the same basic shape.
Ashton was in a position to find out when she became president of the Milliners Guild, a four-year-old organization of small-business owners, milliners, and millinery students who specialize in the design, production, and promotion of handmade headwear. Last year, Ashton proposed her idea to the guild members, and they accepted it enthusiastically. Many were alumni of FIT’s Millinery Program, and FIT agreed to host the event this year, when the hats were completed.
The first step in making any hat is choosing a block (the wooden form milliners use to shape their hats), so Ashton proposed that each hatmaker be constrained to begin with the same block, while having free rein to choose materials and trimmings. According to the rules of the game, there could be no exchange of ideas: the milliners were sworn to secrecy and had to work in isolation. Each one had exclusive use of the block for four days before it was sent on to the next milliner.
The resulting flights of imagination delighted the crowd when they were on display last week.
The Milliners Guild provides “a fun opportunity for all of us to talk about what we’re working on, ask advice, share information and teach each other new techniques,” said Lisa Shaub. “So many of the techniques get lost. We look at the hats from the 20s and 30s and we don’t know how they were made.” As for millinery, “for many people it’s a wacky thing. But that’s not our mentality; we’re artists.”
“African Queen” by Lisa Shaub
This is a shibori-dyed silver and silvered velour fur felt. The feathers are hand-cut felt, dyed, painted and silvered. The buckle is silvered and hand-beaded. Shaub created “African Queen” to showcase her shibori dyeing technique. Shibori dyeing creates patterns on cloth through binding, stitching, folding, twisting, compressing, or capping before dyeing. The tenuous pink line barely visible on the crown and outlining the white band on the brim was the serendipitous result of using pink thread to bind the felt before dyeing it. “New Friends,” by Lisa Shaub
“New Friends” is made of gold and silver sinamay. It’s worn low, over the brow. It recalls Victorian day hats, but with a modern metallic element. The silk petals are silvered, hand-beaded, and hand-sequined.
“Black Widow,” by Barbara Volker
Barbara Volker “love[s] making [hats] because they’re an art form; they’re an object, sculpture,” yet they’re functional while making a fashion statement, she said. Hats designed to be worn at funerals are a genre in themselves called “Merry Widow.” “It’s a black hat, a mourning hat,“ Volker explained. “It’s usually made of black satin. A hundred years ago when they went into mourning they’d have a whole outfit.” Volker took off from that, calling her hat “Black Widow.” Her design follows from the name of the spider.
“Double Crown,” by Barbara Volker
Volcker is wearing “Double Crown”: two crowns of hats sewn together (they “squoosh like a beret”) and trimmed with the extra edging that remains after cutting the hat off the brim “that I swirled into the loopy thing that makes it look like a crown.”
“Summer at the Beach,” by Linda Ashton
One of Petty’s hats for the show is a fuchsia turban-inspired straw hat with sequined and beaded appliqués and feather flourish.
“The hat that I was wearing was actually a fascinator. It is an asymmetrical straw twist on a black grosgrain ribbon-covered head band and accented with a Swarovski crystal hat pin,” explains Petty. “Fascinators are tiny, little, mini headpieces.” They can also be headbands with flowers and/or feathers. They’re usually worn on the side of the head. “You can see them in old movies.” Lisa Shaub and Linda Ashton are wearing them too.In the hat-making business for 25 years, Evetta Petty has had her own store in Harlem for 20 of those years. Petty’s best customers are “churchgoers— they dress very well— and a lot of seniors who have great style. They’ve had it all their lives.”