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What is a Milliner?

Cassie L. Damewood
Cassie L. Damewood

A milliner is a hat maker. He may only produce hats, but it is more likely he is the designer as well. A milliner historically made hats for all people, young and old, male and female; in recent years, however, he is best known for serving a largely female clientele.

In its strictest interpretation, the word millinery refers to any business that makes and sells clothing, as well as hats, to men, women and children. It may also apply to the clothing articles themselves. Much like a modern department store, customers in the 1800s and 1900s would visit the local milliner to buy clothes for the whole family.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Milliners were regularly called upon to take a customer’s old clothing and remake it into a whole new wardrobe. Imaginative milliners could cull a full line of clothing from the hand-me-downs. They were known to take a pile of worn, dowdy clothing and, using creative techniques and imagination, turn it into a snappy wardrobe, including hats, neckerchiefs and caps. Cloaks, coats, shirts and dresses were also made from the old clothes.

In modern times, small hat making businesses are staffed by milliners who work with predetermined molds and designs to exclusively produce hats. They turn out small batches of hats to be sold to the general public. The most common types of headwear produced in these shops are bridal headpieces, caps, bonnets and berets.

Today, a private milliner is a highly-regarded professional who commonly caters to a select and usually well-to-do customer base. These people are usually very fond of custom-made headwear, and the milliner makes hats based specifically on their requests. While he is generally responsible for the design and construction of the headpiece, the customer often chooses the materials and decorations on the hat to match an outfit or to wear at a special event.

Making a hat is a complex procedure. The milliner cuts the pattern to the desired shape based on his own design or one of another hat. He uses hat forms and pressurized steam to mold it into the desired shape. When the lining is carefully sewn into it, the hat is ready to be trimmed.

Trim is what gives the hat most of its personality. Popular adornments include artificial flowers, ribbon, feathers and veils. Fur, straw and leather are less common trimmings for hats. The degree of drama reflected in the finished hat depends on the designer’s vision and the extent of spectacle desired by the customer.

A head covering called a fascinator, which was originally the term for a shawl-like headpiece made of lace or wool, was thought to be lost until the 21st century. At that time, the word reemerged with a new meaning. Instead of referring to a simple piece of material, it now means a hat that is particularly outlandish or frivolous. Commonly worn by pop music icons, it is also popular at international horse racing events where unique headwear is commonplace.

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