“Clothes may maketh the man, but t’is millinery that maketh the woman”
by Tyne O’Connell
The history of women has been a long list of hotly fought battles over milliners.
Given mankind’s predilection for beauty it seems unlikely that hats were first used merely as a form of protection for the head. Paintings in tombs of Ancient Egypt and Greece abound with drawings of elaborate head dresses and wigs.
One of the most impressive collections of richly decorated felt hats was found in Denmark and dates back to circa 1500 B.C. suggesting hats were as much about style and status as protection. Bejewelled felt and prettily embroidered bonnets would have offered little protection in battle other than to perhaps distract a soldier with an eye for style?
Since ancient times, hats have reflected not only status but panache. A walk around any of the world’s historic art collections, especially London’s National Portrait Gallery, demonstrates how hats reflect the mood of both the wearer and the time. Hats have historically been the crowning glory, the pinnacle, the grand finale of any outfit.
The first superstar milliner was Rose Bertin. When you hear the name Marie Antoinette, you envisage the cheeky confections of Rose Bertin, the hats which turned a girl into a queen.
Rose defined not just a queen but an era. Rose Bertin is also credited with implanting the idea of haute couture into the imagination of the vox populi. Strictly speaking the term haute couture did not exist until the mid 19th Century. Like most fashion terms, it is a French expression used to define an eccentric innovation of an English woman or man. In this instance Charles Worth, a bespoke dress designer in the mid 19th Century.
Rather than taking his direction from his customer as was traditional, Charles Worth dictated what women should wear in a gorgeously charming way that belied his power. Showcasing his work four times a year, he effectively created the fashion calendar we still follow. A calendar which enabled women to see the direction fashion was heading and pitted them in a race against one another.
Long before Charles Worth and haute couture, Rose Bertin was directing what women wanted to wear in the court of Marie Antoinette, giving her a lift of three feet or more with the creations that defined both the era and the queen.
Even now if you are looking to stand out in a crowd, turn a man’s head or just make yourself feel special, pop the right hat on your head and you will stride out with the posture of a queen. Shoes may add height but hats add élan.
Milliners are to hat makers, what cordwainers are to cobblers, in that they practice the same craft but with finer quality materials. The term milliner to describe a hatmaker first appeared in the middle of 16th Century London and is derived from Milan, which even then was the go to destination for luxury haberdashery.
Along with the power to add a flourish and give a girl a few added inches of height, a trusted milliner can turn a facial flaw into a triumph and therein lies their true power. This power to enable a woman to be a queen is why the history of millinery has been the history of women.
As a means of sartorial expression of one’s mood, nothing is more effective than a hat. When it comes to giving a girl the edge and ensuring her star rises above all others in a social situation, milliners have made themselves indispensable. Milliners are the non plus ultra when it comes to turning situations into occasions.
Like so many great women little is known of Anna. She was born in Berlin around 1845, married an Algerian chappie in London then fashion capital of the world and had four daughters. She fixed her place in history when she set the world alight with her hats. Despite her great fame like many women she was beset with marital problems and eventually emigrated to America in the 1880’s. Her daughter followed her to America and in her love of hats, setting up a millinery shop at 251 Fifth Avenue New York. Anna taught the art of millinery at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and wrote articles for Harpers Bazaar (The American equivalent of Harpers & Queen) and Women’s Journal. Fortunately for all lovers of hats Anna Ben-Yusuf lives on through her magnificent book The Art of Millinery which remains the resource bible of hat making.
Rose Bertin was the mistress of the cheeky hat and the first milliner to become a celebrity in her own right. From humble beginnings she was apprenticed to milliner, Mademoiselle Pagelle in Paris with whom she soon became a partner.
By 1770 Rose opened her own dress shop Le Gand Mogol on the Rue Saint Honore which remains a pilgrimage for any millinery lover. Rose Bertin’s salon was a flame to the pouf-haired opulent gowns of Paris’s fashion loving moths but it was Rose’s cheeky humour that made her a hit among the gentry. Princesse de Conti, the Duchesse de Chartres and the Princesse de Lamballe and in 1772 Queen Mari-Antionette was of their number.
Rose is credited with making Paris the capital of fine fashion. Elaborate hats, demure straw bonnets, and extravagant headdresses perched on hair dressed in poufs which were often 3ft in height. Working with the Queens hairdresser Leonard Bertin, Rose exploded the theme embedding her witty creations in the coiffure – from rising suns, miniature olive trees and her most celebrated creation – a ship in full sail her hats captured the era.
Her fame was enhanced by her notoriety and attracted an array of ladies of European nobility. Unlike her queen, Rose survived the Terror. Smuggled to London by friends she set up a shop in Mayfair. Her salon survived the French Revolution but tragically her hats did not though her hats continued to be talked about in salons around Europe to the present day. We rely on old copies of the Journal des modes for images of her cheeky constructions.
Rose continues to inspire milliners today, her influence is everywhere. Her famous Gallion Hat was recreated for Izzy Blow by Philip Treacy in homage to his millinery heroins Izzy and Rose.
If Charles Worth is the King of Haute Couture, Caroline Reboux was the Queen of Millinery. When you imagine Marlena Deitrich you are imagining Caroline Reboux so defining were her hats. Wallis Simpson wore a Caroline Reboux to Marry the Duke of Windsor. Reboux was the first milliner to add a veil to a hat. So many millinery innovations began with Caroline Reboux that her shop at 9, avenue Matignon, Paris, opened in 1865 earns its place as a stop over on any millinery pilgrimage.
Like many of her customers, Reboux was self-invented. She created a rumour about herself that she was the fourth child of an impoverished noblewoman and a man of letters, who was orphaned and came to Paris to make her mark.
Regardless of the truth of her antecedents Reboux remains one of history’s most trailblazing milliners not least because she tirelessly promoted hats as the essential fashion accessory. Reboux was a great innovator, creating unique models and up-dating past forms, such as the large-brimmed straws known as Gainsborough hats which she rebirther with a twist.
Caroline Reboux was a true original, an artiste and a true eccentric. She worked alongside Charles Worth the father of haute couture, creating original new shapes in hats such as cloches, veiled hats, and berets for women. Reboux would place a length of felt on a customer’s head, cutting and folding it to shape while the customer stood stock still in fear of loosing an ear. I have had a hat made this way and it is not for the feint of fashion-heart.
One of her innovative creations for Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III was constructed of sable fur and grosgrain ribbon: its naughty irreverent youthfulness was her trademark. Reboux was a milliner’s milliner. Regardless of a woman’s position in society Reboux knew that the hat maketh the woman not the other way around.
Along with her artistic genius she was had a remarkable business acumen. She kept half her profits deciding the rest between her key workers. 1n 1900 Caroline Reboux represented Paris Commerce at the Paris World Fair.
Many of her apprentices including Lilly Dache who trained under Reboux for five years, went on to start their own successful millinery businesses in New York.
Lilly Dache was one of the most inspirational milliners of the early to mid 20th Century. She began her millinery career at 15 when she was apprenticed to the great Caroline Reboux in Paris. It is impossible to look at the artistry of Dache without seeing the genius of Reboux’s innovative approach to millinery.
I fell in love with her The Lilly Dache turbans but her other major contributions to millinery include brimmed hats moulded to the head, half hats and visored caps for war workers.
She emigrated to New York in 1931 and quickly became the most famous milliner in the USA. Hollywood brims with her innovative concoctions from the turbans of the 30’s and 40’s to the whimsically massed flower shaped hats that dominated the 50’s.
Her famous line, ”Glamour is what makes a man ask for your telephone number. But it also is what makes a woman ask for the name of your dressmaker.” could have come from the mouth from any of the Hollywood legends that were synonymous with her hats.
Tyne O’Connell ©