MY ANCESTOR WAS A... MILLINER
Although the occupation has sometimes carried negative connotations, Serena Dyer reveals how milliners’ hatmaking skills came to be regarded as an art form…
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. ancestry.co.uk/search/db. aspx?dbid=1851).
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.
le.ac.uk/cdm) 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, 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 oldbaileyonline.org, 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