The Milliner’s Art

Ada Wentworth, my protagonist in BEYOND ALL MEASURE comes to Hickory Ridge with plans to one day open a millinery shop back east.  Becoming a milliner was a smart ambition in the middle of the 19th century when the fashion of the day demanded that no well- dressed lady leave home without a suitable chapeau.

The word “milliner” derives from the Italian city of Milan, whose goods were imported and sold in shops across Europe.  In the Victorian age, milliners sold not only an array of hats and bonnets, nightcaps, and hat trims, but also fans, garters, stockings, jewelry, corsets and petticoats. In America, credit for the first straw “milliner’s bonnet” is ascribed to a young woman named Betsy Metcalf, sometime around 1798. In  1841, a man named John Genin opened a soon-to-be-famous millinery shop in New York City. His shop was often mentioned in Godey’s and Frank Leslie’s magazines, the most important fashion magazines of the day. By 1856, dozens of hat shops flourished in New York, including those owned by R T Wilde, Mrs. C Shade, Miss DA Gardner, Miss D’Orsay, Mrs. Simmons, and many others. Later, in the 1870’s ladies could also buy hats at the best New York department stores including Best and Company and Lord and Taylor.  Hill Brothers was an enormous New York millinery emporium catering to the trade.

In the 1870’s, hats were worn tilted forward and were made of straw, silk, lace, felt, velvet, wool, and fur. They were often lavishly trimmed with lace, flowers, feathers, buckles, netting, beading, and, as in my novel, sometimes whole birds!  The long ribbons trailing down the back were called “flirtation ribbons.”  The blue and white lace hat I’m wearing in the picture is a reproduction of a typical Victorian- era hat.  The flirtation ribbon is actually a drape of white netting which is not clearly visible in this photo.

In researching the milliner’s art, I learned that hats made of felt were formed on wooden blocks, shaped,steamed, and left to dry. Others were constructed on wire forms. Patterns were used in the same way a dressmaker would use a pattern for sewing a new skirt or jacket.  To get a sense of how a milliner worked, I watched a seven- minute video of  a modern-day milliner cutting and sewing a simple hat. And not to forget my romantic hero, handsome Texan Wyatt Caldwell in his pearl-gray Stetson: visit for a video on how Stetsons are made, right here in Texas.

I grew up in a time when ladies still wore hats to go shopping on Saturdays and of course, to church on Sundays. My mother’s hats looked so  glamorous I couldn’t wait to grow up and wear hats myself. But by the time I hit my teen years, hats had been replaced by tie-dyed bandannas.  Most of the time, I enjoy casual dress. One of the perks of writing from home is that I can work in jeans and a tee shirt and no one’s the wiser. But when I get all dressed up, sometimes I wish hats were back in fashion.  How about you?

2 thoughts on “The Milliner’s Art

  1. mae gray

    Hats are comming back sine the royal wedding. When i was achild my mom always wore hats especially to church. I make hats and i to will be wearing them more often. we can wear gloves also to different functions. wear hats to go shopping fun in the summer times.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Mae, I’m happy to hear from a fellow hat lover! They are fun, and I am glad to see them coming back into style, at least in some circles. Thanks for writing.

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