Flower-Mad: British Couture Hatter Remarks on the Phenomenon of Millinery in English Fashion

27 Jun

Peering intently through her claret-rimmed readers, thimble in place, an instructor sits at eye-level across from one of her American fashion accessories students as she threads microscopic beads one by one onto fishing line. Silence permeates the studio, but not the uncomfortable kind. It is in an air of respect, and absorption with the task.

“Lovely,” she praises in her soft British accent as she watches the student try. Dressed in a floral dress, black leggings and flip-flops, she flits about the room doing personal tutorials.

It is 8:30 a.m. on a surprisingly sunny morning off Marylebone High Street. Tucked away behind the commercialized corners of Starbuck’s and Pret-A-Manger, in the basement of American InterContinental University, teaches one of the United Kingdom’s most celebrated milliners. She is so renowned she needs only but a first name – Prudence.

Vintage Garden Hat from Prudence Millinery spring/summer 2011 Collection

A London-based hat couturier, Prudence has designed hats for the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci, “giving direction” to designer collections for over 20 years. Prudence created her own label of overtly feminine pieces, Prudence Millinery, sold at Bergdorf Goodman’s beginning in 1991, and opened a couture millinery school in 2002.

Straw Hat by Prudence for Vivienne Westwood's spring/summer 2011 Anglomania collection

But Prudence was not always a milliner mastermind. After attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, she worked as a buyer and then as a stylist. With growing antipathy toward her career and NYC, she became dissatisfied. Then, one day she had an epiphany.

In 1985, at a knitwear shoot Prudence was styling for i-D, a UK lifestyle magazine, she met milliner Alan White. His trade intrigued her. White worked alone and employed traditional methods. Prudence set her mind to it.

Rose Cory took Prudence under her wing and privately trained her for seven years. Cory acted as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s milliner for 21 years having studied herself under Royal milliner Rudolf.

Despite the glamour of the catwalk and the ties to the British Royal Family, it is here in this intimate classroom littered with cut up patterns, sewing machines, mounds of pins and student sketch pads, that Prudence, a down-to-earth, eloquent, self-professed “flower mad” woman, elaborates on the phenomenon of millinery in English fashion and why the U.S. is not also steeped in its longstanding tradition.

“The really big reason, culturally, is the English really like to get dressed up,” Prudence said matter-of-factly. “The Americans like to be really nice, very simple. In America there’s not this history of dressing up.”

It was around the 16th century when the Catholic Church mandated women’s hair be covered that hats became a compulsory accessory. The term milliner, as we know it today, came centuries later. It derives from the word Milaner, as in Milan. In the 18th century the finest of hats would have been made here of straw. As hats evolved, they served the purpose of marking social status, protecting from the elements, keeping towering dos in place and eventually, simply for fashion’s sake.

In 1967, the church reneged on its rule to the dismay of milliners everywhere. Headscarves would suffice.

“That put a death to millinery — that cost a lot of people to go out of business,” Prudence said.

To compound the effect, in 1968, Vidal Sassoon’s pageboy bob for Mia Farrow in the film Rosemary’s Baby had 20-somethings tossing their hats aside in exchange for the trendy haircut that redefined what constituted femininity.

Hats all but disappeared throughout the 1970s. It was not until Diana, Princess of Wales, was ordered by the British monarchy to cover her head that hats took off again.

“They treated her like a Royal, but not a modern Royal,” Prudence recollected. “They looked to the past and said, ‘She’s the Princess of Wales. Everyone in the past in a public engagement has had their head covered.’”

Although, Prudence said, the John Boyd numbers Princess Diana wore were factory-made and “frumpy,” they ignited a hat resurgence.

Princess Diana wearing a John Boyd hat in Sicily

Some may say a similar phenomenon is occurring with Catherine Middleton. Prudence could not disagree more.

“No, no, no,” Prudence said vehemently before the question could even be finished. Narrowing her eyes at the mere mention of her name, Prudence said, “Not at all. I don’t think she’s doing anything for anything.”

Her reasoning? Middleton often wears mass-produced hats from The Whiteley Hat Company Limited. Beautiful to the untrained eye, these hats are finished by hand — different than bespoke pieces, which are handmade from beginning to end for individual clients.

Kate Middleton wears a Whiteley Hat Company hat to the Epsom Derby

When asked what she envisioned Middleton wearing, Prudence did not hesitate.

“She needs something a little bit more Halston-looking in this 1970s cool, CBGB’s kind of way … a Bianca Jagger sort of way, something really clean and something not fussy and medium size is nice, a nice brim and a really tall crown … framing her face, but, it depends on what she’s wearing,” Prudence mentally sketched.

Although millinery historically is not synonymous with American fashion as it is in England, within the last year, American women have had their curiosity piqued about possible head fashions — the “punctuation” to a look, as Prudence calls them.

The media has been full of striking images of Lady Gaga rocking eccentric headgear. She has flaunted deconstructed telephones by Fred Butler, diamond-encrusted lobsters and lighting bolt hats by legend Philip Treacy, among others.

Lady Gaga wears a Philip Treacy lightning bolt at the 2010 Grammy Awards

Hats also made a comeback appearance in American films like Sex and the City and Sex and the City 2, of which Prudence’s designs were featured. Click here for a link to clips featuring Prudence’s designs in the first film.

And, who could forget the recent hatfest this Spring at “Wills” and Kate’s wedding? The world saw just how deeply entrenched hat wearing is among the British Royals. Between the uproar over the British Prime Minister’s wife Samantha Cameron going bareheaded (some even called it treasonous!) and Princess Beatrice of York’s public ridicule for a Valentino haute couture and tea rose silk Philip Treacy ensemble, the question arises whether the mandate has lifted.

Prudence denied it had. “Whenever you’re in the presence of a queen you should have your head covered.”

Princess Beatrice’s hat could be summed up as eccentric, among other names.

Princess Beatrice at the Royal Wedding 2011 in a Philip Treacy hat

Prudence explained her theory behind idiosyncratic English fashion: “Either in England you’re either really eccentric … or you’re very traditional. Eccentricity comes from the fact that in school you always have to wear a uniform. So, when you get the chance to express yourself people really go all out. That doesn’t exist in America.”

Among other reasons why hats have not embedded themselves in U.S. fashion codes, Prudence said, is the popularization of sportswear in the mid-1900s. For example, Claire McCardell, an American fashion designer, rejected couture and instead designed functional clothing for women, coining the “American Look.” This craze for comfort did not occur concurrently in England; propriety prevailed.

“Everything was always for an occasion,” Prudence said, whether it was a royal function, a quaint garden party, the Henley boat races or Wimbledon.

While hats have resurfaced in American media, they have been reluctant to trickle down to street fashion, besides a handful of passé manifestations.

American representations range from the pastel church-goer hats of the Southern Baptists, to the Shriners’ tasseled fez hats, to the age 50-plus diva “Red Hatters” of the Red Hat Society who dawn kitschy ruby toppers with feather boas, to the yearly Kentucky Derby with its southern belle headwear.

Paris Hilton at the 2011 Kentucky Derby

But, very few, if any of these, use the bespoke method. American hats create a stark contrast to Prudence’s favorites from her archived collection: a pheasant feathered cage twist, and a natural fox and black silk velvet tiara.

“Mine have a definite look to them,” Prudence described. “They’re very outfit specific. I always get the best fabrics and things I can find. They’re very directional. They’re very fashiony, but at the same time, they’re quite a bit understated.”

A hat, Prudence said, should provide the wow factor to an outfit, yet should not be noticed in the context of an ensemble.

“It has to be something really personal, so when they’re wearing what they want to wear with it … it all goes together like it was all designed together,” Prudence enlightened.

Unfortunately, she added, hats will soon be dead, maybe even by mid-century as those trained fizzle out and designer’s attention spans shrink to seconds.

Looking up, she said, “Millinery is really popular at the moment. It’s more popular than it has been in a long, long time … all over.” Millinery increases couture’s impact, a designer’s direction, enhances runway collections and is excellent material for editorial, Prudence said.

For American fashionistas who want to jump on the bandwagon for the first time, you better be quick.

And this season’s options are endless. On spring/summer 2011 runways everywhere the hat was back. Prudence and Westwood showed off angled, fraying straw sun hats, glam turbans, oversized cowboy hats and polished berets. Moschino, Carolina Herrera, Jason Wu and Pucci sent timeless cool headpieces down the runway this season, as well.

Henriette Couet’s article in this season’s H&M Magazine, sums up America’s variable obsession, albeit non-tradition with hats, “Whenever hats are on trend, we turn our gaze to England … In a country where hats are de rigueur for royalty, headwear never really goes out of style.”

Bucket Cowboy Hat from Moschino spring/summer 2011 collection

From Jason Wu's spring/summer 2011 collection

One of Carolina Herrera's spring 2011 ready-to-wear looks inspired by the straw hats men traditionally wear in Korea


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