Al­though the oc­cu­pa­tion has some­times car­ried neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, Serena Dyer re­veals how milliners’ hat­mak­ing skills came to be re­garded as an art form…

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Serena Dyer is an his­to­rian of fash­ion, shop­ping and con­sump­tion at the Univer­sity of War­wick

Al­though the oc­cu­pa­tion has had neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, Serena Dyer re­veals how milliners’ hat­mak­ing skills came to be re­garded as an art form

Nowa­days, we as­so­ciate millinery with hats – es­pe­cially those art­fully crafted cre­ations worn by women at so­cial oc­ca­sions, from fam­ily wed­dings to As­cot. How­ever, 300 years ago millinery was not such a spe­cialised, ex­clu­sive trade.

The milliner’s shop was a com­mon sight on most ur­ban streets from the 18th cen­tury and, along with dress­mak­ing, pro­vided one of only a hand­ful of rel­a­tively re­spectable trades for women to be in­volved in. The term ‘milliner’ came from the trav­el­ling trades­men of 16th-cen­tury Mi­lan, who would sell rib­bons and laces.

Milliners pro­duced an ar­ray of women’s dress ac­ces­sories, in­clud­ing caps, aprons, cloaks, hoods, muffs, ruf­fles and trim­mings, as well as hats and bon­nets. They also bought in and sold rib­bons, laces and gloves, among other fash­ion­able ac­ces­sories. Some milliners, es­pe­cially prior to the mid-19th cen­tury, also made gowns and dresses for ladies and chil­dren, usu­ally on com­mis­sion.

On en­ter­ing the milliner’s shop, the cus­tomer would be greeted by a colour­ful ar­ray of fash­ion ac­ces­sories, usu­ally dis­played be­hind a counter. The milliner would in­di­vid­u­ally serve each client, some­times sit­ting them down and of­fer­ing re­fresh­ment, while they sought out and pre­sented the items they might be in­ter­ested in over the counter.

Aside from as­sist­ing fash­ion­able shop­pers, milliners also of­ten pro­duced many of the items that were for sale them­selves. This could range from sim­ple tasks, like hem­ming hand­ker­chiefs, to

The milliner’s shop was a com­mon sight on ur­ban streets from the 18th cen­tury

more com­plex millinery in­volv­ing wire and buck­ram, a linen or cot­ton fab­ric heav­ily stiff­ened with starch, that was used to make the more com­plex hats of the 19th cen­tury. Such ma­te­ri­als re­quired both sig­nif­i­cant skill, and some strength and dex­ter­ity to work with.

Milliners were usu­ally trained through an ap­pren­tice­ship. The records of th­ese ap­pren­tice­ships, usu­ally the in­den­ture, pro­vide fas­ci­nat­ing de­tails about the lives of milliners and their ca­reer paths. Ances­try pro­vides ac­cess to the Reg­is­ter of Du­ties Paid for Ap­pren­tices’ In­den­tures, 1710-1811, which is a great re­source if you have been lucky enough to trace your an­ces­tors back to the 18th cen­tury ( search. ances­ aspx?dbid=1851).

Com­pul­sory ap­pren­tice­ships

In 1814, com­pul­sory ap­pren­tice­ship by in­den­ture was abol­ished, and in­stead was of­ten ar­ranged on a more ca­sual ba­sis. Ap­pren­tice milliners gen­er­ally served their ap­pren­tice­ship for five years, usu­ally from the age of 14. Ap­pren­tice­ships could cost as much as £ 40 – which was not an in­sub­stan­tial sum in the early 19th cen­tury.

Trade di­rec­to­ries pro­vide

in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion about milliners. The Univer­sity of Le­ices­ter’s Spe­cial Col­lec­tions

depart­ment ( spe­cial­col­lec­tions. has digi­tised a wide se­lec­tion of re­gional trade di­rec­to­ries, from the 18th to the 20th cen­tury, which are also gen­er­ally avail­able at lo­cal ar­chives. Th­ese di­rec­to­ries pro­vide de­tails of where your an­ces­tor worked, whether they were in part­ner­ship, and what other kinds of shop were on the same street. Some trade di­rec­to­ries were up­dated ev­ery few years, so it is also pos­si­ble to trace in de­tail any changes in the lo­ca­tion or size of the busi­ness.

Sta­tis­ti­cally, trade di­rec­to­ries show that it was far more likely for women, rather than men, to be in­volved in the millinery busi­ness, es­pe­cially from the se­cond half of the 18th cen­tury.

Men who worked in the fem­i­nised fash­ion trade were of­ten ridiculed for their ef­fem­i­nacy, and were de­picted as small, stoop­ing, preen­ing char­ac­ters, of­ten un­scrupu­lous and un­trust­wor­thy, and de­scribed as ‘ half-men’.

Women’s work

Women, on the other hand, suf­fered from an age-old as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween fe­male oc­cu­pa­tions and pros­ti­tu­tion. Suc­cess­ful milliners could be­come rel­a­tively wealthy busi­ness­women, how­ever, the girls who worked in milliners’ shops were paid poorly, and it is pos­si­ble that they had to look for sec­ondary em­ploy­ment.

The Lon­don Trades­man, a pub­li­ca­tion aimed at giv­ing ad­vice to young peo­ple who were think­ing about en­ter­ing a trade, claimed that “the ti­tle of milliner, [was] a more po­lite name for bawd”, mean­ing a woman in charge of a brothel.

Many of the ba­bies who were given to the Lon­don Foundling

Hos­pi­tal were the il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren of un­mar­ried women in the millinery and dress­mak­ing trades. The trial records of the Old Bai­ley, which are ac­ces­si­ble on­line at old­bai­ley­on­, of­ten con­tain records of young milliners who were led astray.

Much of the doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence does back up the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween milliners and pros­ti­tu­tion; how­ever, that’s not the whole story. As millinery was as­so­ci­ated with fe­male work, and fe­male work had his­tor­i­cally been as­so­ci­ated with pros­ti­tu­tion, there was also an in­trin­sic gen­der bias against women who worked and earned a liv­ing in­de­pen­dently of a father or hus­band.

The fash­ion in­dus­try

In the 19th cen­tury, millinery grad­u­ally be­came more specif­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with the mak­ing and sell­ing of hats. It was also more com­mon for women to un­der­take millinery work from home, which was paid by the piece, and could be in­cor­po­rated into a rou­tine of daily chores to sup­ple­ment a house­hold in­come.

As fash­ion de­vel­oped into a more struc­tured in­dus­try, so too did millinery. In the early- and mid-20th cen­tury, hats re­mained a vi­tal part of the out­fit of any well-dressed lady, and were as­so­ci­ated with fash­ion and re­spectabil­ity. In 1909, The Art of

Millinery: Prac­ti­cal Lessons for the

Artiste and the Am­a­teur, writ­ten by Ger­man-born milliner Anna Ben-Yusuf, was pub­lished. This was one of the first ref­er­ence books that ex­plored the tech­niques used by milliners, and pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the com­plex­ity and di­ver­sity of millinery skill.

By the early-20th cen­tury, the mak­ing of hats was con­sid­ered an art form, and a skilled pro­fes­sion spear­headed by tal­ented de­sign­ers. By this time, many hats sold in high street shops were con­structed in fac­to­ries, mean­ing that milliners were of­ten ei­ther the de­sign­ers, or the shop girls sell­ing th­ese hats, al­though some con­tin­ued to both make and sell hats in­de­pen­dently.

At this time ‘celebrity’ milliners also be­came more abun­dant. Caro­line Re­boux, the child of an im­pov­er­ished French noble, set her­self up as the ‘Queen of Milliners’ in 19th-cen­tury France. Sim­i­larly, Mr John, an Amer­i­can milliner, was said to be the millinery equiv­a­lent of Dior in the 1940s, and cre­ated the hats for Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.

Over the course of the 19th cen­tury, millinery be­came in­creas­ingly re­spectable em­ploy­ment for women. Not only did it en­able them to sup­ple­ment house­hold in­comes and im­prove their qual­ity of life, but it also pro­vided wid­ows and un­mar­ried women with a means of in­de­pen­dent sup­port in a man’s world.

A milliner work­ing for well-known fash­ion de­signer,

Nor­man Hart­nell, c1935

An im­age of a bustling milliner’s shop from the book So­cial Car­i­ca­ture in the Eigh­teenth Cen­tury,


The millinery depart­ment of Bourne & Hollingsworth in Lon­don, 1942

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