L is for Line

Line is the intangible and abstract element upon which successful millinery depends. When line is absent or misdirected, it is as obvious to the trained eye as the lack of a feather or flower is apparent to the eye of the novice. So important to millinery, line is the quality that can transform the roughly executed into a desirable object in the same way that its deficit can render the most exquisite materials mundane.

In traditional workroom training, line was one of the major preoccupations of the experienced milliners as they went about their work reproducing the sample models for customers’ orders. Maintaining the integrity of a style’s line is not necessarily something that can be taught and is certainly not guaranteed as a rite of passage for the long time student. It is a mercurial element of design that is easily misplaced by inexperienced or insensitive hands.


In my first season in a workroom, I was given the task of manufacturing a small run of a shallow crowned upswept bretons; I loved the smart semi-circular bite in the brim and the patent-leather bow trimming. Conscientiously and meticulously copying the sample by measuring the hat from every angle, I produced the wholesale order of 6 black, 3 winter-white, 3 cerise and 2 emerald green, one after another within the allowed time. Basking in the warmth of a job well done, I recall bumphing up my hats on a bed of white tissue to await the Boss’ inspection.

‘Look at that row of hats sitting there!’ he pointed out to the head milliner and as I lowered my eyes modestly, he ranted, ‘They look like pies sitting in a cake shop window! They’ll all have to be fixed!’ Although exacting in my work, it was obvious to him that I hammered the very lifeblood from the design, producing objects of cloned dullness; all lacking the spark of the original. The ensuing scene of the workroom head’s hands trying to insinuate a happy lilt into the lifeless fruits of my creativity, scurrying along behind the sweep of the Boss’ fist knocking all before him onto the floor, proved a salutary lesson about the quintessence of hand making hats.

Speaking of line in relation to hats means more than the mandatory straightness of cut edges or the evenness of applied trimmings and binds that are the hallmark of good workmanship. Throughout the 20th century, the line of the hat has uniformly implied a fall down to the right hand side. This is not such an unexpected phenomenon as societies have universally upheld biases to the right-handed for centuries. Consequently all hat blocks reflect this tradition, meaning that the hats made from these shapes comply with right-sided design lines.

Practicality also plays a part in traditions and the large brim of a plume trimmed cavalier’s hat would be pinned close to the crown on the left to allow the swordsman amply room to draw his weapon from his left hip with his right hand without impediment. As a result, the deep full width of the hat would be pulled down to the right side of the head by the right hand and the upturned brim would sit high on the left. The harmonious proportions in the counterbalance between huge hat pulled to the right and the sword on the opposite hip relates to ideals in line that are still prevalent today.

Historically design lines were the decorative delineating borders and binds trimming a woman’s hat that gave style as opposed to the manner in which the hat related to the head. When the mode in hair is full and piled high, the hat plays a jockeying role sitting astride fashionable chignons and banks of curls that defy a sharp and purposeful angle. Victorian and Edwardian women achieved their distinctive fashionable appearance through extensive use of false hair and padded rolls. Although their smart hats frequently incorporated curvaceous lines and audaciously rakish trimmings, the bulk of their coiffures rarely allowed little more than a strict horizontal plain on which these creations could settle; those without the assistance of a ladies’ maid probably faired worst in anchoring their headwear with a desirable sauciness.

Edith Wharton’s anti-heroine Lily Bart, fallen upon hard times and determined to learn the millinery trade, found the business of sewing spangles in a line acceptable to her forewoman, a humiliating experience that soured her dream of ever running a smart hat shop. Fledgling milliners always formed their tastes through association with more experienced table hands. The aesthetic of an establishment reflected the combined influences and experiences of the staff. A technique from another house might be adopted or amended according to taste, fashion or requirement.

Tip-tilting is a term used for the exaggerated angle at which the hat is purposefully placed onto the right brow. This solitary action imparts a jaunty and often knowing air to the wearer and is particularly effective with small hats such as cocktail shapes or bellhop tambourines. However the crown height of the hat cannot be too exaggerated as the effect will be comic rather than chic and can look drunkenly askew. Best to avoid this leaning tower of Pisa effect if tip tilting makes you hat assume the appearance of a gravity-defying wonder of the world. The rakish tilt of the hat can be an effective antidote to an otherwise undistinguished hat but should be used sparingly.

It is arguable that line became most important to women’s hats when pure line became their greatest ornament. As the influence of the head hugging, round crowned cloche of the 1920s abated, hats imitated an architectural flow that came to characterise the artifice of the 1930s. The influence of the Arts Decoratifs and surrealism became apparent as block makers turned sculptors, creating waisted chimney pot crowns shapes with funnel tops snipped off at acute angles. The eternal family squabble within millinery for dominance between crown and brim, saw the angled crowns dictating the angular sweep of small drooped or rolled brims, whose sole option was to complete the dramatic line that the sculptural crowns rendered imperative.

Felt was the medium favoured across the fashion seasons in the 1930s, which saw the development of ultra fine fur felts suitable for wearing during warmer weather. Felt hats abounded on the cinematic screen as their dense surface absorbed light whilst their dark intensity dramatically framed the made up and arc-lit faces of the screen goddesses. The wide spread accepted of use of cosmetics, along with the dyeing and permanent waving of hair, created a feminine image contrived to imitate life as portrayed by Hollywood from which not only fashions but also mannerisms were closely observed and copied.

Hence mannish styles such as the brimless fez and versions of the tall-crowned Tyrolean hat appeared in countless variations across the 1930s. Plain in execution except perhaps for a jewelled clasp, small feather mount or a trifling novelty fashion from toning grosgrain ribbon, these hats by dint of pure line played as important a role in completing the image of the fashionably modern woman as did her eyebrow pencil or her lipstick. Chic hats that sweep the brow, seductively kiss the cheek and relate directly to the head had come into being. Henceforth design lines in millinery would, through the high-style years of the mid 20th century, relate more directly to the face of the wearer, with few incursions of aesthetic and changed tastes, dominate styles and making practices for the next 70 years.

Today workrooms have ceased to be the primary source of training and a new breed of milliner is emerging from structured courses or even self-education, whose redefining of the old rules of line is opening them to reinterpretation. The rise of the fascinator and the unstructured feathered headdress has seen headpieces worn in new ways that would once have been thought impossibly inelegant. Yet a good eye is perhaps more important than ever, as the relaxation of the old right-hand rule requires the astute wearer to judge each piece on its merits and discern the angle at which her headwear is best tipped in order to achieve the most pleasing effect. In this time of emphatic individuality and flouting of conventions, the choices made by the wearer influence the line of the hat and how it will be worn, as much as the milliner themselves.


Phillip Rhodes

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