History of Milliners

Hat designer in studio

Milliners create hats for women; hat makers make hats for men. This is the nineteenth- and twentieth-century differentiation of the two trades, which, although related, require very different technical skills and working practices.

Early Minniners

The term "millinery" is derived from "Millaners," merchants from the Italian city of Milan, who traveled to northern Europe trading in silks, ribbons, braids, ornaments, and general finery. First chronicled in the early sixteenth century, these traveling haberdashers were received by noble aristocratic households, passing on news of the latest fashions as well as selling their wear. News of the latest styles and variations on dress was as important to men as it was to women, and milliners often acted as much sought-after fashion advisers to nobility all over Europe. One such milliner is mentioned by William Shakespeare in the historical drama Henry IV part 1, written in 1597, when the gallant warrior Hotspur refers to his encounter with a "trimly dress'd lord" as:

Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin reap'd
Show'd like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box.

Milliners would also have traded in fine Florentine straw hats, a trade that might have been the reason for some of them to settle down as hat makers. Creating extravagant hats as well as having a flair for fashion and finery were, and still are, the trademarks of successful milliners.

Rose Bertin

The first celebrated "Marchande de Mode," or "modiste" as they were later called in France, was Rose Bertin (1744-1813). Her name is linked with Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, the most extravagant and illfated fashion icon of the eighteenth century. It could be argued that Marie-Antoinette and her "Ministre de Modes," Rose Bertin established haute couture in Paris and thus made it the capital of fine fashion. Elaborate hats, demure straw bonnets, and extravagant headdresses, called "poufs" were the height of fashion in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Rose Bertin's witty creations were perched high up on the coiffure and featured rising suns, miniature olive trees, and, most famously, a ship in full sail. Her fame was enhanced by her notoriety and attracted an array of ladies of European nobility. Her salon survived the French Revolution but sadly all her hats, just like her famous clients, have disappeared and can only be traced in copies of the Journal des modes, which according to the custom of the period, never mentioned or credited the designer or creator of model hats.

Betsy Metcalf

The fashion for straw bonnets spread to the newly independent America and with it the millinery trade. Betsy Metcalf of Providence, Rhode Island, was one of the first milliners in the United States. She is said to have invented a special way of splitting locally grown oat straw, which she bleached in sulfur fumes, plaited, and sewed in spirals, creating straw bonnets intersected with fine lace and lined with silk. Having started to make hats at the age of twelve, she set the trend for new straw weaving techniques and became the founder of American millinery. The production of straw hats became an important home industry and rivaled the expensive imports of Florentine (Leghorn) straw from Italy. A bonnet that is said to be one of Betsy Metcalf's is in the collection of Rhode Island's Literary and Historical Society.

Nineteenth Century Milliners

During the nineteenth century, bonnets and hats were not only fashionable, but essential in any woman's wardrobe. Bonnets were romantic and coquettish and thus the perfect accessory for women of the era. Millinery flourished, led by a strong force of Parisian "modistes," who set the tone for high fashion and demanded to be addressed reverently as "Madame." Famous names were Madame Herbault, Madame Guerin, and Madame Victorine, who created Queen Victoria's bonnets. Society ladies expected milliners to create unique models and jealously kept their sources secret. Sadly, not many hats survived, as they were often restyled or the trimmings reused. Testimony of some exquisite creations can only be found in illustrations and pictures without the mention of the relevant designer or maker. However, as millinery thrived on both sides of the Atlantic, millinery designers established their personal creed and reputation.

Parisian Couture Modistes

Caroline Reboux, at the Maison Virot, was the first legendary Parisian couture modiste, making hats for the French Empress Eugénie in 1868. She reputedly created individual designs by cutting and folding felt or fabric directly on the customer's head. Her famous salon in the rue Saint Honoré survived until the 1920s. Her pupil Madame Agnes became equally sought after for her experimental surrealistic styles. Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian-born couture designer and friend of Salvador Dali, also created surreal hats in the 1930s. She unleashed her artistic talents by creating hats using newspapers, seashells, and birdcages with singing canaries. Her Shoe Hat designs of 1937, famously worn by Daisy Fellowes, editor of Harper's Bazaar, made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

Coco Chanel

Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel was a milliner before she started her couture career. She established her first salon in the elegant apartment of her lover in Paris in 1910. An avant-garde fashion trend leader of her time, she created simple shapes and decorated sparingly to compliment her vision of modern dress. She is credited with the creation of the cloche hat, which, pulled down low over the new short hairstyles, was to become an all-time classic.

Other Famous Names

Other famous Parisian modistes of the 1930s and 1940s included Maria Guy, Rose Valois, Suzanne Talbot, Rose Descart, Louise Bourbon, and Jeanne Lanvin, who like Chanel expanded her millinery salon into haute couture. Most couture houses, like Dior, Jean Patou, or Nina Ricci, had their own millinery ateliers, all headed by a "Premiere" (Designer), a "Seconde" (Head of Workroom), with several workrooms full of "Petites Mains" (workers). Millinery hierarchy had strict rules of etiquette, with La Premiere and La Seconde always addressed as "Madame" and the inferior workers given diminutive names like Mimi, Gigi, and Flo-Flo. Milliners working in couture houses considered themselves superior to their dressmaking colleagues. The girls had a reputation for being pretty and coquettish, were always meticulously groomed, and spent more money on lipsticks and powder than on food and rent. The industry had economic importance, with top ateliers employing up to 300 milliners each.

Parisian Exports

Parisian milliners not only created hats for a selective private clientele, they also supplied a thriving wholesale export business to many stores in the United States. Lilly Daché, a Viennese-born, Parisian-trained milliner, settled in New York and led the way for talented American designers. Having opened her first tiny studio in 1926, Lilly Daché built a millinery emporium, taking over a whole building of seven floors, with a silver room for her blonde clients and a gold one for brunettes. Her devotees included the Hollywood stars Carmen Miranda, Betty Grable, and Marlene Dietrich, who all loved her chic toques, demure snoods, and stylish "profile hats," which were her trademark.

Sally Victor and Mr. John

Sally Victor and Mr. John of New York later took over the reign of Lilly Daché and maintained the importance of American millinery design. Mr. John had been in partnership with Frederic Hirst since 1928 and established his own business in 1948. His famous clients included Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Mrs. Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor. Toward the end of his career Mr. John of N.Y. collaborated with Cecil Beaton on the extravagant costumes for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

Adele List

In Europe, the most notable milliner of the interwar years was Adele List in Vienna, whose hats were an expression of aesthetics and art. She was a highly disciplined, austere-looking figure and created hats with masterly craftsmanship. Using felt, straws, silks, and feathers, she combined shape, proportion, and texture in a unique harmonious way, which never looked dated. Some of her intricate pieces took over fifty hours to make and had detachable necklaces built into the shapes. One devoted client collected and preserved 248 model hats created by Adele List, all preserved in individual hatboxes. After her death, the collection was donated to the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, Austria, in 1983.

Aage Thaarup

Aage Thaarup was a Danish milliner established in London and the first in a line of male milliners who were to dominate the second half of the twentieth century. He was self-taught and broke the established French rules of apprenticeship and gradual mastery of millinery. Having charmed the core of his high-society clientele on a voyage to India, his reputation spread quickly, and drew in ladies of the British Royal family, including the duchess of York and her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. When the duchess became queen of England in 1936, Aage Thaarup was officially "appointed by Her Royal Highness" and later created hats for the young Queen Elizabeth as well as for the Queen Mother.

Otto Lucas

Paris still dominated the millinery scene until the 1960s, when London took the lead with Otto Lucas, who established a most successful model wholesale business in Bond Street. His designers and ideas still came from Paris, but his flair for style created a chic, modern look much praised by millinery buyers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Decline of an Era

Madame Paulette, his favorite designer, was the last of the grandes modistes of the Parisian school. With Claude Saint-Cyr, Jean Barthet, and Jean-Charles Brosseau, she was part of an era sadly in decline during the 1970s. At the height of her career Paulette had reigned over a much admired hat salon, with workrooms of 125 milliners and 8 vendeuses mondaines, society ladies with personal relations to important clients. Paulette created twice-yearly collections of 120 hats, presented to powerful foreign buyers as well as to her distinguished high-society clientele. Paulette's trademark was le chapeau mou, her draped soft turban, a sophisticated headwear for "bad hair days," popular during the 1940s and 1950s. Few of her clients knew that Algerian soldiers had inspired Paulette's original turban design during the liberation parade on the Champs Elysées in 1944.

Hats Out of Fashion

Youth culture and the social liberation during the 1960s and 1970s brought a demise in the fashion for hats and with it a steep decline in business for milliners. The 1980s heralded a brief revival, which was partly due to Princess Diana, a fashion leader and icon of the British hat industry. London held on to its lead in millinery design, supported by royal patronage and social summer events like horse racing at Royal Ascot and Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace. John Boyd, Graham Smith, and the royal milliners Frederick Fox and Philip Somerville, a quartet of hat designers during the 1970s and 1980s, managed very successful model millinery as well as wholesale businesses in London. Small factories in Luton, Bedfordshire, U.K. supported manufacture, which, historically had been the center for straw hat production in the nineteenth century. Some factories, millinery supply businesses, and block makers are left in the early 2000s, but a museum has a rich collection documenting the importance of the hat trade in the past.

A New Generation

During the 1980s, a new generation of millinery designers graduated from London's Fashion and Art Colleges, creating hats as pieces of art. David Shilling was the first, gaining notoriety and much press coverage with striking Ascot creations he designed and made for his mother. Mrs. Gertrude Shilling's entrance, wearing yet another extraordinary hat, was much anticipated and celebrated every year at Royal Ascot.

Patricia Underwood

Patricia Underwood was a star milliner in New York during the 1980s and 1990s, with her unmistakable style of pure shape and simplicity. New York also had Eric Javits, a very successful millinery designer, who built a multimillion-dollar business and was voted Hat Designer of the Year by the Millinery Institute of America. Millinery has also declined in the United States, but the Headwear Information Bureau (HIB) founded in New York in 1989, promotes millinery with public relations and competitions for young designers.

Stephen Jones

Stephen Jones, a New Romantic of the 1980s, included men among his devoted clients, and created hats for the pop stars Boy George and Steve Strange, as well as for the Spandau Ballet. His hat salon in London's Covent Garden district was designed to be full of fun, wit, and unexpected details. Stephen Jones is a rebel with a romantic streak and designs an eclectic mix of very wearable fabric hats, which reflect his original training as a tailor. Apart from creating diffusion ranges under the label "Miss Jones" and "Jonesboy," Stephen Jones works with many of the new top designers, such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana, and John Galliano, creating headpieces for cutting-edge catwalk shows.

Philip Treacy

Philip Treacy, an internationally awarded accessory designer, graduated from London's Royal College of Art in 1990 and immediately hit the headlines with his flamboyant and unmistakable hat creations, lifting millinery to an even higher level of art and design. The meteoric rise of the Irish-born young designer was also much celebrated at Parisian catwalk shows, staged by top couture houses like Dior, Chanel, and Givenchy. Philip Treacy even created his own millinery show in 1993, when supermodels paraded wearing show-stopping creations, acclaimed by the fashion press. One of his famous, much-photographed pieces was a hat with a black sailing ship, which might have been inspired by Rose Bertin's design in the late eighteenth century. A true and devoted lover of his craft, Philip Treacy personally makes many of his masterpieces. His label has become a status symbol and some of his celebrated hats are collector's pieces, treasured by museums, like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A Bare-Headed Era

During the twentieth century, women's lives changed drastically and imposed a fast-living lifestyle not compatible with the ethos of beautiful hat creations. The twenty-first century has become a bare-headed era and glamorous hats have become "special occasion wear," only worn for weddings and high-society horse races. However, it is conceivable that the next generation of young designers might reinvent millinery with a new concept and purpose.

See also Gabrielle (coco) Chanel; Men's Hats; Women's Hats; Jeanne Lanvin; Elsa Schiaparelli; Philip Treacy.


Buxbaum, Gerda. Die Hute der Adele List. New York: Prestel Munchen, 1995.

Ginsburg, Madeleine. The Hat, Trends and Traditions. London: Studio Editions, Ltd., 1990.

Hopkins, Susie. The Century of Hats. London: Aurum Press, 1999.

McDowell, Colin. Hats, Status, Style and Glamour. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1992.

Muller, Florence, and Lydia Kamitsis. Les chapeaux, une histoire de tête. Paris: Syros Alternatives, 1993.

History of Milliners