Trial’s End – Milliners & millinery: What’s she wearing on her head?
One hundred years ago, a person felt naked not wearing a hat. Ladies, gentlemen, working class folks, children – all wore a hat in public.
High fashion dictated hats for every season in a variety of styles. Women’s hats and hairstyles followed fashion trends. During the 19th-century Victorian period of corsets, crinolines and bustles, a small fancy hat trimmed in ruffles or feathers perched upon a lady’s head. With the highly popular pompadour of the early 1900s Gibson Girl look, hats had to be anchored to a towering pouf of hair. Hats grew larger, wider and more elaborate. The ultimate was the picture hat, very broad-brimmed and laden with fancy decorations, swathed in filmy chiffon and festooned with feathers.
During Colorado’s earliest years, the Main Street of most towns and cities had a millinery shop that specialized in fashionable female headwear. Swiftly changing styles created a fashion swirl, and women strived to keep up with hat trends. Sometimes, hat styles changed a dozen times during a two-year period.
In early Colorado, pioneer women hungered for news of eastern fashions, and gobbled up magazines like Godeys’ Ladies Book and Ladies’ Home Journal that guided style and taste. The milliner came to the rescue, creating confections and concoctions that capped a woman’s elaborate outfit. The milliner knew how to stretch velvet or brocade over the stiff hat frame and how to apply bountiful decoration. She beautified the hats with lavish artificial flowers, Bird of Paradise plumes, yards of lace, streams of ribbon. Sometimes a bird’s wing or even the whole bird – stuffed and mounted – adorned the chapeaux.
The milliner’s tools of trade were pins, needles, scissors and measuring tape; and her thimble never left her finger. An entrepreneur, she knew how to promote the latest look and priced her creations accordingly: “I’m here to tempt your eye and empty your pocketbook” seemed to be her motto.
Before long, Sears Roebuck catalogues, efficient railroad freight and department stores aided women in purchasing ready-made hats. Nevertheless, milliners remained in demand, fashioning fancy handmade hats for special occasions like weddings, dress-up balls and festive holidays. Their clientele included middle- and upper-class wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of business owners, bankers, doctors, lawyers, tradesmen and shopkeepers, women who aspired to the utmost in headwear.
The millinery industry was itself significant because it offered a genteel and respectable livelihood to women, especially for single females. Some milliners worked in their homes while raising their families. Many became merchants on Main Street. A successful milliner typically leased a storefront, hung out a prominent sign and advertised in the local newspaper. Savvy in business and skilled in the intricacies of hat making, she also must know everything about fashion. The most sought-after milliners traveled to trade shows in New York City or Paris to get a glimpse of new designs and bring back styles for Colorado clients.
Custom hat making flourished in the early 1900s. Thirteen milliners advertised in the Colorado Springs Business Directory in 1913: six women, two men and five department stores, most of which were located in the Tejon Street business district. These included two single females, Miss Vivian Fuquah and Miss Beulah McGothnic.
The need for the milliner and her handmade hats diminished during the 1920s. Women’s hats got smaller and sassier: most popular was the fitted, bell-shaped cloche hat that flattered the Flapper’s short “bobbed” hairstyle. The 1930s saw the rise of Hollywood glamour that called for wispy confections and novel hat shapes. The 1940s and World War II spawned feminine versions of tailored masculine styles, such as fedoras. The pillbox hat worn by First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the early 1960s was one of the last stylish hats of renown.
Meanwhile, the church hat gained momentum, especially among black congregations. The fashion trend coincided with blacks’ northern migration from the rural South in the 1920s, according to headwear historian Dr. Beverly Chico. Black women in urban areas began donning evermore elaborate hats to wear to Sunday worship.
Church hats became fashionable style statements, a dressing ritual that was (and is) fun, reverent and classy. Some women owned dozens of church hats in different styles, colors and shapes.
“The hats got bigger and bigger and taller and wider,” said Chico, who is a nationally-recognized expert on hats and history. “Wearing large, eye-catching hats became an expression of the women’s independence after emancipation… some called it ‘hattitude.’
“The hat industry was a big industry. They had straw-hat day… The song and musical In Your Easter Bonnet marketed hats in the springtime.”
Today, hat fashions still sprout in springtime, especially the traditional Easter hat. Hats become the focus at Denver society events, garden parties and polo tournaments.
And then there is the Kentucky Derby hat tradition. Held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., this 1.25 mile race for three-year-old thoroughbreds is as famous for its the exotic hats as it is for horses. Known as “the most exciting two minutes in sports” and the “Run for the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby attracts approximately 150,000 spectators to enjoy the race and the spectacle of the elaborate hats. Even Kentucky Derby partygoers watching the race via television dress up in fancy hats.
If you are in the mood for an Easter bonnet, you yourself can create a “millinery masterpiece” with the help of the historic fashion experts at the Molly Brown House Museum, 1340 Pennsylvania St.. A March 31 workshop provides the hat, materials and refreshments (cost $55; registration required). The Museum’s Carriage House gift store also sells ready-made, Victorian-style touring hats – large brimmed and decorated with feathers, birds, tulle, ribbon and feaux flowers. Call 303-832-4092 or visit www.mollybrown.org.
If you desire something contemporary or classic, you can go to Go Go Chapeaux in Cherry Creek North, perhaps the only hat boutique in Denver. The shop features the creations of milliner Erin Saboe, perfect for teas, baptism, polo matches and, yes, Easter Sunday.