Millinery embraces the design and making of many forms of hats and headwear worn on all occasions. It includes those made for Theatre, Film and TV. Traditionally associated with the making of hats for women, milliners now make hats for everyone using a wide variety of materials. See also hat making.
This craft uses products derived from animals – please read our ethical sourcing statement.
|Historic area of significance
|Worldwide, in the UK Luton, Dunstable and Bedfordshire
|Area currently practised
|UK, with the hat making trade centred in Luton
|Origin in the UK
|The recognised trade of millinery is thought to have begun around the 1500s.
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|51-100. All maker figures are based on analytics from HATalk, London Hat Week statistics together with participation in social media groups, knowledge of class sizes of UK millinery courses and responses to the 2021 British Hat Guild and London Hat Week Survey.
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
|At least 100 craftspeople, across all skill sets would be minimal
Millinery is found in all countries around the world where it is associated with the making of traditional forms of regional headwear or with fashion and occasion wear. The craft was also historically associated with Paris, France: Florence and Montappone in Italy; in the Manobi Province of Ecuador; Czech Republic; Germany; Spain; Portugal; and Russia.
In the UK, Millinery was found in many towns and villages. Historically the trade centre was London with the West End having a large industry of workshops and showrooms. The millinery trade was also associated with larger factories and workshops in Luton, Bedfordshire, Greater Manchester, Warwickshire, Glasgow.
The term millinery is commonly thought to have been introduced in the 1500s, however, the trade of millinery probably predates this since earlier historical records indicate the wearing of fashionable hats, therefore implying some form of production and trade. A precise date for the introduction of Millinery into the UK is unknown but records indicate some form of recognised trade by the early 1500s.
Originally linked to dressmaking and the trimming or decoration of women’s hats, during the 1800s millinery developed into a more organised trade centred in London with connections to Luton. The milliners would either buy the materials to make a hat or buy ready-made hats to trim. Milliners were found in most cities and large towns around the UK. Materials were purchased from travelling salesmen or from the hat centres of Luton, Greater Manchester, Glasgow, or London. Designs were provided by fashion plates, Ladies’ magazines, and close observation of fashion trends in Paris.
In the mid 1800s London had become a major UK centre. Many companies were based in the City of London, at Barbican. This area was close to the haberdashery centre of Wood Street. There was also a trade for fabric hats in the East End of London and a developing centre in the West End of London close to Soho. By the early 1900s, besides the larger London millinery companies and independent milliners, newly introduced department stores established millinery departments. A Board of Trade Enquiry found there were approximately 11,000 milliners working in London. Several investigations into the London millinery trade in the early 1900s found cases of low pay, long hours and reported on the difficulties created by the seasonality of the trade. The reports indicate how varied the work of a milliner was, how many skills and techniques she needed to learn and how quickly she had to adapt, often through the provision of apprenticeships.
The millinery trade had grown to the extent that it introduced an association in the 1930s, the Millinery Distributors Association which largely dealt with the wholesale side. The West End trade continued to grow and milliners, such as Aage Thaarup, Rudolf, Otto Lucas, Simone Mirman, through their celebrity and connections to the Royal Family, created new interest and growth of the millinery trade. They were to provide the training for the next generation of great milliners such as John Boyd, Freddie Fox, Graham Smith, Mitzi Lorenz, Shirley Hex, Rose Cory and Philip Somerville, who in turn provided the training ground for many of today’s top UK milliners.
This increased interest and its links to fashion and the Royal Family created demand within the retail and wholesale markets where the new designs were quickly copied. As early as the 1890s the larger Luton hat manufacturing companies had recognised a loss of trade to the London millinery centres and began to bring millinery into the factories, meaning they could market a finished hat to the trade. Many of the Luton companies also had millinery departments and factories in London where they formed the wholesale side of the trade.
By the 1960-80s several large Luton companies such as Paul Walser, Wooley Sanders, Connor, Bermona, Marida and Kangol thrived thanks entirely to the millinery trade. Today most of the remaining hat manufacturers in Luton describe themselves as milliners as well as hat manufacturers.
Currently most milliners work independently or employ a small number of workers. Many of the country’s most famous milliners are working in London. Some work with Paris couture houses creating new trends which are copied by others. Whilst some have small workrooms employing assistants, most work alone needing to be multiskilled in all aspects of the trade. The complaints recorded one hundred years ago remain amongst today’s milliners: poor pay, long hours and the seasonality of the trade. The skills and heritage contained within today’s UK milliners means they are highly respected and still regarded as a source of inspiration around the world. Millinery courses offered in the UK are in high demand due to the quality of teaching and the UK’s millinery heritage.
There is an association between hats and headwear made for a variety of UK festivals and celebrations, but these are often made outside the millinery trade although milliners do receive commissions. Reproductions are currently made by Milliners working in the Theatre/TV/Film industries.
Hats and headwear are extensively worn as a requirement of many religions found in the UK. The wearing of a hat is still considered correct by some sections of society when attending religious occasions. The wearing of suitable hats and headwear are considered as a requirement for many UK social occasions, such as Royal Ascot, weddings, etc. The wearing of hats is still considered a requirement for many Royal occasions.
- Designing – producing drawings/sketches of hat designs.
- Pattern Cutting – measuring and mathematical skills for making patterns for cut and sewn hats.
- Dyeing – to colour or bleach materials including parasisal straw and felt hoods and capelines. Other materials such as sinamay, silks, cottons and feathers.
- Stiffening – Stiffen felts either before or after they have been blocked. Most straws require some stiffener to help retain a good shape and give a nice finish.
- Blocking – a method of shaping the millinery fabric over a block to impress the shape
- Steaming – immersing the fabric in front of the steam to help shape the fabric
- Rolling – rolling over fabric to shape fabrics to make trimmings or shapes for hats
- Wiring – wiring the edges of shapes to make them stand up or out
- Finishing – to cover with fabric or to steam and brush
- Trimming – to add decoration to the hat.
- Furriers – skilled worker in cutting, sewing and finishing duties involved in the manufacture and repair of fur and leather garments.
- Feather working – dyeing, cutting, stripping, shaping, sewing, glueing, wiring, creating mounts, pads and flowers.
- Flower making – specialist tools for cutting, moulding and shaping to make individual hand-made flowers from silks, satins and velvets. Hand dyeing and painting to achieve realistic flower colours.
- Millinery veiling – to create different types of veiling such as face/birdcage, blocked veils, veiling as trimming and bridal veils from tulle.
Luton: straw plaiting was key to the hat industry
Cirencester: historically, wool was shipped from Oxford to Bristol via the River Thames and the River Severn. The wool trade served the blanket trade in Whitney and many other trades, such as that of making military hats (and uniforms) from wool which was dyed in Stroud and sent to Bristol.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Historically the UK has had a large and very reputable hat manufacturing industry, until in the 1990s it was badly affected by cheap imports, primarily from China. The Far East had for many years been supplying the UK with raw materials, however in the early 1990s they began to produce and export finished hats at far lower prices than the UK could possibly match. The sudden drop in demand for the more expensive UK-produced hats caused, over the next 10 years, the collapse of many companies. At the same time the retail side of the trade was affected by unreasonably high rents. This still affects companies and independent milliners.
However, due to the talent and tenacity of the British, the UK has since become the world’s leader of high fashion, particularly in millinery, with exquisite designs, made in small ateliers and workshops. Today, some of the country’s top designers work for major European couture houses, Stephen Jones for Dior, Philip Treacy for Valentino in Italy.
What needs to be done to make it viable?
- There needs to be a reduction of student fees in colleges.
- Increased awareness of the industry in schools and colleges.
- Introduction of a national apprenticeship scheme that is easy and inexpensive to operate.
- Note: At the time of compiling this entry, only one short-term apprenticeship appears to be running in the UK. Based with a Luton hat company it is part sponsored by the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust.
- Government assistance for the 3rd and 4th generation factories operating from historic buildings, where they are still producing women’s millinery.
- Provide support to The British Hat Guild so they can play a role in nurturing new talent and developing millinery as a profession.
- Use empty shops as pop-up shops for upcoming milliners.
- Greater awareness and willingness by local government to identify and support heritage crafts within their area.
Supply of raw materials: It is still possible to buy the imported supplies required to make hats, but prices have risen and the range of products reduced over the years. Currently there is a concern about the effects of the pandemic and Brexit on supplies. Some of the UK allied trades are under threat and if they fail it may badly affect millinery supplies.
Covid 19: During the pandemic there has been a complete shutdown of factories and ateliers across the country. Many smaller milliners, makers and factories are in dire need of work and support. And one of our largest manufacturers Olney Headwear, closed completely in December 2020.
There is never a lack of demand for headwear and the demand for learning millinery skills never ceases, whether it is for everyday or special occasion headwear. There are a wide variety of opportunities for learning including regular classes for millinery/hat making and online learning.
The British Hat Guild closed in 2000.
- London Hat Week
- Millinery Info
- The British Hat Guild
- The HAT archive
- The Hat Magazine
- The Hat Works Museum, Stockport
- The Worshipful Company of Feltmakers of London
- Wardown House Museum and Art Gallery
- British Millinery Association
There are several prestigious and highly respected colleges offering a range of courses in the UK. Their tutors include some of the country’s top experts.
Craftspeople currently known
- Alva Wilson
- Ana Bella Millinery
- Awon Golding
- Becky Weaver
- Bee Smith Millinery
- Beverly Edmondson
- Bridget Bailey
- Camilla Rose
- Cara Meehan
- Dillon Wallwork
- Eda Rose-Lawson
- Edwina Ibbotson
- Emily London
- Flora McLean
- Georgina Abbot
- Harvy Santos
- Ian Bennett
- Jane Smith
- Jane Taylor
- Jess Collett
- Jo Miller
- Judy Bentinck
- Julien Garner
- Juliette Botterill
- Justine Bradley-Hill
- Justine Smith
- Karen Henriksen
- Katherine Elizabeth Millinery
- Layla Leigh
- Lucy Barlow
- Merve Bayindir
- Misa Harada
- Nerida Fraiman
- Noel Stewart
- Paul Stafford
- Philip Treacy OBE
- Rachel Richardson
- Rachel Skinner
- Rachel Trevor-Morgan
- Rosie Olivia
- Sahar Freemantle
- Sally-Ann Provan
- Sarah Cant
- Sarah Lomax
- Sarah Marshall
- Sean Barrett
- Siana Yewall
- Sophie Beale
- Stephen Jones OBE
- Tracy Chaplin
- Vesna Pesic
- Victoria Grant
- Vivien Sheriff
- William Chambers
Businesses that employ two or more makers:
- Barford Bros.
- Boon & Lane
- K.R Snoxell & Sons
- Ken Peirson & Sons
- Lock & Co (Millinery)
- Majesa Ltd.
- Nerida Fraiman
- Philip Treacy
- Philip Wright
- Rachel Trevor-Morgan
- Stephen Jones
- The Whiteley Hat Company
- Tom Llewellyn
- Try & Lilly
Status: Whilst millinery is not considered endangered, there are some aspects of millinery and hat making that are under threat. The larger factories are declining at a rapid rate and the smaller designers and ateliers are becoming endangered. There is a lack of students entering the trade and a lack of work-based training for hat makers.
Wilcox, Turner, The Mode of Hats and Headdresses
Laver, James, A Concise History of Costume
- HATalk, a magazine for milliners