“I think we are like the bastard stepchild of the accessory world,” Laurie Kennard, a member of the Chapeau Guild, says with a laugh.
Laurie Kennard is referring to the lack of press that hats and therefore milliners receive in fashion magazines. Tonya Gross, a milliner and winner of the prestigious millinery Hatty award agrees, stating that the opportunity to sell in retail spaces is shrinking despite the resurgence of hats on the fashion runway for the past 7-8 years.
Eia Radosavljivec, former founder of the Millinery Arts Alliance and millinery professor at the School of Art Institute attributes this to America’s myopic aesthetic viewpoint.
“I do think it’s a real shame that so many people are afraid to be individualistic at all about how they look. American’s pride themselves on individualism and freedom but it’s a bunch of lemmings,” she says. Because they have to be wearing something they’ve seen someone else wear before. “
Owner of Formé millinery, Jenny Pfanenstiel agrees, commenting on how surprised she was upon entering the field to see just how dying the art really was.
“You used to be able to walk down Michigan Avenue and find couture milliner shops everywhere,” she says dismayingly, alluding to places such as Raymond Hudd’s boutique and the millinery salon at Marshall Fields, both of which have closed.
The deterioration of couture millinery in the scheme of retail is due to the lack of education that faces most potential hat buyers.
Member of Chapeau Guild Marjorie Marshall says she can differentiate between two types of women when her guild throws events showcasing and selling hats.
There are the women who, according to Marshall, love hats and know what looks good on them and there are the other women who are fascinated by hats but are too hesitant to purchase one, believing that hats simply do not suit their face.
This is one of the reasons why events thrown by the Millinery Arts Alliance and Chapeau Guild are so crucial in educating the general public.
“I like to interact with the public because I hear over and over again that from customers that ‘oh my heads too big or I can never find the right hat fits me,’ says Gross. By having a customer in front of you, you can dial in the right silhouette and the right angle for them.”
Another facet that deters customers from purchasing hats is the intimidation factor that hats present to most customers.
“Getting women not to be afraid to wear hats is probably the biggest obstacle that milliners face,” says Kennard. “Wearing a hat down the street will get you noticed she says, so it takes a certain amount of confidence to wear a hat.”
But at the same time she counters that the right hat won’t feel like a costume, it will just bring out certain facets of the wearer.
“It brings out different parts of people’s personalities says Radosavljivec, parts that they have always possessed but keep on the back burner. I know people outside fashion think that fashion is superficial but it’s really interesting to see how how good of a communicator hats can be.”
Kennard says she was surprised to discover what she calls “hat women,” women who collect couture hats the way some women collect bags or shoes.
Gross says her clients are usually women with a distinct perspective, knowing what they want and what they need.
“I attract customers who are more mature, more stylish, a fashionista. Someone who is interested in something that is handcrafted and one of a kind,” she says.
Julia Winn, a purchaser of hats since the early 90s says she grew up watching her mother wear hats and was inspired to go to a hat event that she read about in the Chicago Tribune.
At her previous job she says that “people may not have known who I was but they knew me as the women with the hat. “Some men have a power tie; I have a power hat.”
She says that it does take a certain amount of confidence and price point to wear a couture hat which sometimes associate a certain type of exclusivity with the millinery industry..
One of the biggest misconceptions about millinery, Gross believes is the elitist and esoteric stigma associated with it.
“I’m always conscience of what’s going on the price tag,” she says. “I’d much rather continue to keep headwear on the radar for most people and not just take it to the runway and make it an exclusive club.”
The waning popularity of hats is even more of a reason she says, to open it up to the masses.
Kennard dismisses the argument that a milliner’s prices alienate customers, stating that compared to what women spend on pursues and shoes, hats are not that expensive.
“It depends on the style of hat,” she says. You can have a beautiful everyday hat to go along with a great coat and it will cost you the same as a great pair of shoes.”
Radosavljevic says that the perpetuation of the stigma is both the customers and milliners’ fault.
“I think it’s both ends faults. I think milliners need to design less expensive things that aren’t cheaply made garbage but still have put quality into it and I think the customer needs to be willing to put something on their head,“ she says.
She points out that all hats do not need to have feathers and veils and that after a while the donning of a hat seems quite natural.
“When I started designing hats I started wearing them everyday. At the beginning it felt a little contrived but after a week if I didn’t wear one it felt like I forgotten to put on my underwear.”
Mass-produced hats are a point contention among milliners. Some state that mass-produced hats shift attention away from traditional millinery while other milliners argue that the more people wear hats the better it is for the industry.
“To think that one size would fit everyone is crazy,” Lisa Farrell says of department store hats. “Mass produced hats are just a travesty, because people think that’s all there is.”
Kennard agrees, stating that one size fits all hats would be like if shoes were made in only one size.
“You can have a milliner make a hat for you and it’s not going to cost much more than a hat in a department store,” she points out.
Radosavljivec says that people wearing hats, even if they are mass produced would be a good thing for millinery, since it would prompt certain individuals to seek out a couture, one-of-a-kind hat.
Many people question whether millinery hats will ever truly resurface, or whether it is fated to become obsolete, residing in fashion’s proverbial closet amongst elbow length gloves and parasols.
Kennard agrees that hats have become incongruent with the times but this, she feels, isn't such a negative quality. “Hat’s are so out of time that they have become timeless,” she says.