The Art of Millinery

Amelia Rowland

About five years ago I decided I should take up an easy hobby - millinery. Now I can laugh scornfully at my naive ambition, especially as I learned how complicated and time consuming it can be. I started with some scrappy, mangy little fascinators, hand-sewing fabrics, ribbons, fake flowers and netting. I took my inspiration from the 1940s, with the intention being to then jump straight to pill box hats. I ended my illustrious career of fascinator making with 0 sales on Etsy, about 7 metres of leftover fabric (too amazing to bin or give away) and handing off my wares to my adoring public (2 friends). To be successful as a milliner involves several things: skill (obviously), persistence, and also a unique vision. In many ways the milliner is more than a crafty sort, they are highly trained artists - and many milliners have shown the beautiful intersection between art and headwear.

A customer tries on a new hat in the millinery department of Bourne and Hollingsworth on London's Oxford Street in 1942

A customer tries on a new hat in the millinery department of Bourne and Hollingsworth on London's Oxford Street in 1942

In 2009 milliner Stephen Jones collaborated with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London to curate the exhibition Hats: An Anthology By putting hats into the gallery environment he established that: like art, hats are produced from creative visions, millinery practice is in some ways similar to the artists workshop or studio, and like artworks the hat can often be a product of commissions (a unique bond between milliner and client). Viewed in this historic way, the exhibition charts movements in cultural practices and also fashion trends. The exhibition then travelled to several galleries around the globe. Viewing hats in galleries is not a new concept though, as the precedent for considering millinery in the same way as we view art was set long ago.

When Italian-born French couture visionary Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau in the mid-1930s it was an inspiring merging of art and fashion aesthetics. Her work, already having hints of surrealist quirks, started developing into artistic pieces, including the famous 'shoe hat' and ‘getting handsy belt’ (that’s definitely what it’s known in art circles, by the way…). These accessories are humorous and full of the Surrealist tendency to play with our preconceived notions. In this instance, art became functional and wearable - and are still desirable to this day (I’d give a kidney to have that belt). In the late 1950’s, Andy Warhol also started exploring an infusion of art and fashion - from his Brillo pad dress to the illustrative subtlety (by Warhol standards) of the ink and dye on paper work HatsThis work was one of his commercial illustrations, as he worked for major fashion publishing house producing adverts. Find out more about this time of his career and this work here

As contemporary milliners continue to push boundaries (and the neck strength of their models) we see hats becoming elaborate, detailed artistic pieces. The late Alexander McQueen wanted millinery to complete and parallel his collections, leading to the stunning collaboration between him and milliner Phillip Treacy. 

Attribution: TheSmartStylist.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/thesmartstylist/ [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Attribution: TheSmartStylist.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/thesmartstylist/ [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by natural forms and the natural world, these hats are unforgettable reflections of artistic considerations like texture and shape, colour and spectacle. For an overview of this magic pairing find out more here. London based milliner, Noel Stewart, has taken inspiration from contemporary art and architecture to continually produce collections that are closer to artistic peacocking (unrelenting showing off) rather than a wearable piece of head gear. Far from the world of pom-pom beanies or your M&S straw hat with feathers for the races, his works play with depth, illusion and colour, and like Treacy/McQueen pushes our understanding of the shape and form a hat should occupy. 

As hats interact with contemporary fashion and their tendencies to create spectacular couture and avant garde pieces, milliners look for inspirations that are similar to an artist. They turn to nature, they turn to geometry of the world around them, and they turn to the huge breadth of art history. In many ways these hats are like a moveable, expressive and tactile form of art. Like installation pieces before them, they will be considered within art galleries in years to come. And if you can prove me wrong, I’ll eat my hat!