Last Fashion Friday, WVFC presented Part I of Diane Vacca’s “Milliners’ Challenge,” featuring eight extraordinary hats created for the show “One Block Many Milliners” at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. (The challenge: Each of the 25 milliners had to create her hat on the same wooden block.) This Friday we spotlight more fantasies from the exhibition—all of them dramatic, some of them delightfully wild. —Ed.
The milliners at the “One Block Many Milliners” show drew as much attention as their creations that were on display. Monika Stebbins, for example, and Conney Borda turned many a head.
“Dunes,” by Monika Stebbins
“Peacock Pinwheel,” by Conney Borda
Stebbins (left) is wearing “Dunes,” made with Sinamay straw and eyelash feathers. She was inspired by the beach, the undulating sea oats waving in the wind.
Dyed peacock feathers and an ostrich plume embellish Borda’s hat (right). Asked how it all stays in place, she replied, “glue and patience.” (Photo: Diane Vacca)
This hat is hand-dyed honeycomb sisal straw trimmed with a pheasant wing and hand-made bird.
“’RIPP,’” said Cha Cha, “means ‘Rest in Peace, Patty.’” Patty was her dad’s bird. When Cha Cha made the straw bird for the hat, she enclosed Patty’s bones within the body, used the skull for the head and trimmed the hat with the bird’s feathers. “How creepy!” she commented. Cha Cha likes making things that aren’t perfect, things whose lack of perfection makes them interesting. (Photo: Diane Vacca)
“Skyline Hat,” by Regina McCarthy
Made of hand-stitched red and black felt, the “Skyline Hat” was inspired by the view from McCarthy’s apartment window. “Recognized the world over, the Manhattan skyline has come to represent the very symbol of a city itself,” McCarthy observed.
“Black Rose,” by Regina McCarthy
Photo: Karen Cunningham
“‘Black Rose’ was sometimes used as a code word for Ireland when English laws prohibited direct references to Ireland as a sovereign nation,” McCarthy explained. “My Black Rose hat symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings.”
McCarthy wasn’t sure what she would do with the hat after blocking it. She turned it inside-out and it looked like a flower. She had her answer.
“Bordello” and “Blocked,” by Judith Solodkin
Milliner Judith Solodkin is modeling “Bordello,” a hat she created out of hot-pink fur felt, garter belts, and black lace. “It’s lingerie out in the open,” she remarked.
Solodkin made “Blocked” (right) out of three fur felt crowns and one fur felt brim. Decorative pom-poms made of acrylic-wool blend are crocheted into the hat body.
“‘Blocked’ is my reaction to the bowl shape of the hat block,” Solodkin noted, “and I emphasized this shape by repeating it three times. The pom-poms are small round shapes that echo the larger shape.” (Photo: Diane Vacca)
“Princess Leia,” by Judith Solodkin
This hat is made of “woven paper, cellophane and Sinamay straw, with decorative pom-poms made with acrylic-wool blend, crocheted separately and attached to the hat body,” the milliner noted. “‘Princess Leia’ is the block deconstructed. The same pom-poms are used as summer earmuffs to unify the two hats.” (Photo: Diane Vacca)
Why Have Hats Fallen Into Disuse?
Cha Cha assigns part of the responsibility to Vatican II (1962–65), which altered tradition by allowing women to attend church without covering their heads.
At the same time, she said (along with many of the other milliners), hair spray and other products for the hair became really important. Many women feel that wearing a hat will “mess up their hair” and give them “hat head.” Since few people wear hats now, those who do really stand out,” said Cha Cha. “When you’re wearing a hat, you’re getting attention. If you’re wearing an interesting hat, you’re kind of a kooky person. Which is a good thing— I think—but a lot of people don’t want to be that.”
Conney Borda agreed. “Women are really self-conscious these days. Everybody buys from the Gap or the same store all the time, and there’s a look that they’re told they have to have. And they’re afraid to color outside the lines.”
Milliners have other problems as well. “In this bad economy,” said Borda, “all the milliners have taken a hit.” Competing with China is challenging—”It’s really, really been hard.” Borda noted that the Chinese produce hats for $40 while a handmade hat can go for $400. Women who wear $500 shoes and a $2,000-handbag will wear a $40 hat, she said, “and it’s on top of your head.”
Many people don’t like how they look in hats. “Some women will try it on,” said Borda, “and they look at themselves in the mirror and automatically make a nasty face. They say, ‘I don’t look good in hats.‘“ Borda once lost it at that point. “I said, ‘Well, unscrew your face’—I don’t think I sold a hat that day.”
“Our mistake,” said Stebbins, is that we don’t make hats that go with casual clothes. People are willing to dress up to look silly—hats with ears or Santa hats—but they’re afraid to look stunning.”
People wear hats to protect themselves from the elements, not just in winter, but in summer, from the sun. But there’s another good reason to wear a hat that you may not have suspected. Conney Borda knows that a hat “gets you off jury duty. For some reason, it works every time.”
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.
Twenty-five members of the Millinery Guild used this one block to create two hat designs each for the "One Block Many Milliners" event 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
Ashton’s creation is a Panama hat trimmed with layers of hand-sewn vintage blue straw braid fringe, vintage mother-of-pearl flowers, and vintage porcelain hand-painted flowers. The crown is sewn and pinked into a peak. Inside it’s trimed with vintage straw braid. Dangling from the hat is a miniature kite. Ashton is wearing “Party Hat”—fuchsia velour fur felt covered with an arrangement of vintage beads and baubles. Its unique shape is similar to a birthday party hat or a clown hat.
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.”
Petty believes hats are making a comeback. Younger people are wearing them, she said. They see celebrities setting an example. And of course, Kate Middleton “created a hat buzz all over the world,” Petty continued. “Younger girls, especially between 20 and 30 years old, all of a sudden want to look a little bit more glamorous.” At the same time, she said, many younger people don’t want to cover their hair. “I think they have an obsession with hair.”
Next Week: Milliners’ Challenge No. 2—the Wild Ones