Hat lady on a mis­sion to bring back lost style


Made­lyne Im­rie didn’t have to at­tend a royal wed­ding to learn that a hat can be a crown­ing glory. Her mother was a milliner. Her fa­ther made dresses. She grew up sur­rounded by style mak­ers and ap­pre­ci­ates sar­to­rial flourish.

So when she learned the “hat lady” was bring­ing her ex­hi­bi­tion to Clair Hills Re­tire­ment Com­mu­nity in Water­loo, Im­rie donned a cheery cha­peau to match her dress.

“We al­ways wore hats,” says Im­rie, 94. She re­mem­bers hav­ing a spe­cial hat perched on her head when she met Queen El­iz­a­beth II at the Royal York Ho­tel in Toronto in 1997.

Im­rie came to the hat show with a hat box con­tain­ing the go­ing-away hat she wore af­ter her 1953 wed­ding. She joined a mainly fe­male au­di­ence to lis­ten in­tently as Norma Shep­hard talked about the his­tory and so­cial rel­e­vance of hats.

Shep­hard loves wear­ing vin­tage items. Hats are a fash­ion piece for her, but they also re­flect ma­jor changes in the so­cial evolution of women and so­ci­ety, she told the au­di­ence.

Shep­hard ex­plained the prove­nance and so­cial con­text of each head­piece as it was gen­tly re­moved from its hat­box by her white-gloved hus­band, Jim.

“All of our fore­moth­ers used to wear hats,” she said. Women nod­ded in agree­ment. But hats fell out of fash­ion in the 1970s for rea­sons in­clud­ing so­cial and reli­gious changes, bee­hive hair­dos that didn’t work with hats, and the pop­u­lar­ity of ca­sual dress.

“I’m do­ing my best to bring them back,” Shep­hard said.

As founder and di­rec­tor of the Mo­bile Millinery Museum, Shep­hard has col­lected more than 2,500 hats, stor­ing them in a cli­mate-con­trolled fa­cil­ity in Burling­ton.

She show­cases a selec­tion of vin­tage millinery for spe­cial events. The his­to­rian and au­thor of sev­eral books about fash­ion and hats is also the sub­ject of a bi­og­ra­phy about her millinery pas­sion. “The Hat Lady” was writ­ten by Pa­tri­cia Boyle.

Shep­hard’s trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion comes to life when hats are placed on mod­els such as Clair Hills staff mem­bers Paula Parejo and Carine Brunet. The two young women brought a youth­ful per­spec­tive.

“I felt pretty glam­orous wear­ing the hats that I mod­elled for the show. It made me think that we as a gen­er­a­tion are miss­ing out,” Parejo said. “Some of the styles were so light and com­fort­able, I think those styles in a reg­u­lar wardrobe would have dressed you up with­out even try­ing.”

Shep­hard started col­lect­ing hats al­most 30 years ago. It dis­tressed her to see beau­ti­ful items dis­carded in thrift-shop bins. Be­yond the beauty and fash­ion, there is a story of the in­di­vid­ual who owned each hat, and the era in which it was pop­u­lar.

Shep­hard iden­ti­fies three ma­jor stages in the women’s movement that are associated with hats:

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