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)


“RIPP,” by Cha Cha


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.”

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard June 2, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Great article but one small important change – one of the artists you profiled is Judith Solodkin not Sorodkin.
    I did a video of this exhibition. Here is the link:

    • Diane Vacca June 2, 2013 at 11:48 am

      You have a good eye, Grace! Thank you for letting us know. I’m not sure how that error slipped by, but I’ve just corrected it.

  • drpatallen April 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm


    Thanks so much for this splendid piece that is illustrated with photographs of such interesting hats. I know that you spent hours attending the exhibit, photographing the hats, interviewing the milliners and then writing this post.

    I do hope that women begin to wear hats again since a hat so often finishes an outfit so perfectly.

    Pat Allen

    • Diane Vacca April 20, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      Thank you, Pat. The details– the nitty-gritty of layout, copy editing and picture editing– can be tedious. And writing is hardly ever easy. But they’re well worth the fun I have meeting and talking with interesting and creative people.

  • christine berthet April 20, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Hats are gorgeous .I love them . thanks you for bringing us these pictures . They are really convenient in the winter and in the rain, so there is a need but no creativity…
    Plus hats are good in the summer to walk in the street and stay cool and protect the skin…
    I always wear a hat to the US open for example.

    • Diane Vacca April 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm

      Christine, you could wear one of these with panache.

  • Diane Vacca April 20, 2012 at 9:38 am

    The milliners will love you!

  • Stacey Bewkes April 20, 2012 at 7:00 am

    How wonderful! I adore hats and am going to make a concerted effort to help bring them back!!