Originally published in
July 2009
On the spring/summer 2009 catwalks it was headwear that stole the shows. From the ultimately wearable (rain hats at Burberry Prorsum, trilbies at Gucci, veiled bonnets at Luella) to the truly fantastical (head haystacks at Junya Watanabe, space helmets at Giles, diy wraps at Vivienne Westwood), no outfit was complete without a hat. Following "it bags" then super-sized jewellery into the limelight, headwear is the latest accessory to have a fashion moment. But why now? And which milliners are the ones to watch? Helen Jennings investigates.
My first hat was turquoise crepe de chine spray mounted on an old piece of cardboard with a plastic iris stuck to the side of It - a low-end Roxy Music pillbox!" Stephen Jones
Photography: Patricia Niven

Hats have played a huge role in fashion's history, with headdresses posing as a reflection of the wearer's status and lifestyle as well as the spirit of the era. The term millinery was first coined in 16th-century Milan to describe the fine felt, ribbons and straws exported to make caps and bonnets. However, it wasn't until the 18th-century that millinery became a recognised and desirable trade.

French designer Caroline Reboux (1837-1927) raised millinery to an art form on par with couture and was responsible for Marlene Dietrich's trademark berets. Edwardian hats were large and ostentatious, in keeping with the period's lust for excess, but by WWI they had shrunk dramatically due to the need for utilitarian, affordable fashions. The interwar period was arguably millinery's heyday with New York's upscale department stores opening millinery rooms and making styles Inspired by the glamour of Hollywood. By the 1960s, hats had fallen from favour as ready-to-wear made fashion more egalitarian.

It wasn't until the 1980s that the popularity of headwear rose once more, thanks In part to London milliner and original Blitz Club kid Stephen Jones, “My first hat was turquoise crepe de chine spray mounted on an old piece of cardboard with a plastic iris stuck to the side of It - a low-end Roxy Music pillbox," Jones recalls fondly. These days he's as well known for his colourful mainline collections as those he's done for catwalk designers. For S/S 2009 Jones worked with Christian Dior, John Galliano and Marc Jacobs. “John really wanted British hats, so we went for the Busby," he says, "We used ostrich feathers to create the flow and likeness of bearskin. Marc requested boaters but there was something a bit (too) neat about them so I sat on one. The girls from my studio looked on In horror as I destroyed all of their hard work!"

According to Jones, millinery's recent catwalk renaissance Is no fluke. "In this present financial climate, designers are offering customers investment dressing while using millinery to entertain," he reveals, "There still has to be that eye candy so they are showing classic clothes with crazy hats. Before, hats were seen as separate to the rest of an outfit. Now they're Integral to a look.,"

Jones' current Victoria & Albert (V&A) exhibition Hats: Art Anthology by Stephen Jones (on until May 31) Is another sign of the growing interest In millinery. "I spent three years studying the archives and found the most extraordinary things, from a collection of Victorian bonnets to a 16th-century knitted serfs hat that looks so modern It could be straight out of a Yohjl Yarnamoto show," Jones explains. Also on display is a Prince Albert top hat. a Balmaln hat worn by Ava Gardner and Cecile Beaton's work for My Fair Lady. In one cabinet a Cartier diamond tiara from 1900 sits next to a pink plastic Disney tiara, instantly summing up Jones' philosophy: from the sublime to the ridiculous, hats are for all.

Jones has always kept good company. Upon graduating from college in 1990, he was taken under the wing - and roof-of the late, great Isabella Blow. "Issy was living upstairs while her resident hat maker was in the basement working away all night long to come up with goodies." Treacy recalls, "Wild people pitched up all the time to try on hats."

In 1994 he opened his own boutique on Elizabeth Street in Belgravia, London where he remains to this day. "Our customers are everyone from a young girl who's saved up tor a £150 rainwear trilby to this one very distinguished gentleman of about 70 who orders 20 couture hats each summer to entertain the ladies staying on his yacht," Treacy explains, "It doesn't matter how much people pay for them, everyone wants to look a million dollars in a hat."

For S/S 09, his collection was comprised of his signature sun hats and feathered fascinators while on the catwalk he made elegant stetsons and turbans for Ralph Lauren. Although his own hats have proved enduring, Treacy's not surprised by millinery's resurgence, "When I started out, people believed hats were only worn by ladies of a certain age," he recalls, "I thought that was completely insane, hats are very sexy - they're the ultimate accessory - and they are part of popular culture. It would be crazy to think of the world without them. You know, a baseball cap is a hat and everybody wears them so it's only one step beyond to wear something a little more adventurous. I have had the greatest pleasure challenging people's perception of what a hat should look like In the 21st-century."

A new breed of milliners Is also pushing the Industry In fresh directions. Camille Roman, designer and founder of Tour de Force, worked with Lanvln, Zac Posen and Lulu Guinness before launching her own range of kitsch head accessories last year. "For me, millinery is a extension of one's self and a landmark on the landscape of the body," she says, "Now people are looking for a new futurism in fashion and the previously neglected surface of the head has become a space to play with these ideas."

Londoner Justin Smith garnered press with his graduation show in 2007 "I had a ring mistress, fire eater, fan dancer, dwarf and a fat lady sing at the end," he recalls, "I incorporated the objects each circus performer used into the head wear.” Smith went on to launch J Smith Esquire with an equally dramatic A/W 08 presentation involing young boys baIIroom dancing with life-sized dolls in toupees and flying caps. This season each hat comes in multiple parts and can be worn in a myriad of ways. "I like the theatrical side of fashion and millinery that tells a story, whether it's a traditional shape with a twist or a full-on showpiece," he says, "It's great to see more hats on the street and young milliners coming through."

Piers Atkinson is perhaps the most avant-garde of the new breed. "My mother was a milliner for the Royal Opera House so I've always loved fantastical hats," Atkinson explains, "My first collection last year was based on cartoon mouse ears and Rorschach blotches. This season I've done a series of abusive and abused masks." S/S O9's cast of characters Includes the villainous clown with golden arched brows, the devil-faced harlequin and dollar-eyed thief. Not exactly the stuff of Ascot, is It? "My hats make an impact, so Ascot would actually be perfect," Atkinson retorts, "I want the person wearing one to feel a bit off-centre, as If they might just do anything for the hell of It. My hats also complement a quirky face and can make a plain girl become a queen, I'm all for that,"

With Atkinson's headdresses making it into the new milliner's cabinet at Stephen Jones' VSA exhibition alongside the likes of Noel Stewart. J Smith Esquire and Naslr Mazhar, these young guns have received the ultimate seal of approval. "We're reintroducing hats to a different generation," Jones concludes, "Today It's not about etiquette, it's about the every day and having a good time. Hats now have a different vibe,"