Millinery Design: How to Choose the Correct Mix of Feathers, Ribbons, Net, and Flowers to Decorate a Period Hat

Have you ever been totally overwhelmed when you walk into a large Craft or Fabric store to purchase the things you need to decorate that fantastic hat you are constructing? Here is how I go about making the process a lot easier. All the steps below can go for any period but the suggestions are tailored to late 19th Century hats.

Before you shop the most important thing is to figure out the aesthetic of the time period. Was simple and elegant in vogue or where overly decorated hats and dresses what everyone wanted?

What is the best way to figure out the aesthetic of the period?

Journal des Dames et des Demoiselles 1873 Dress of the first Bustle period.

Getting your hands on a period hat can be a big bonus and can tell you a lot not only about design but also construction. However, one hat can’t tell the whole story I check many sources from fashion plates to period portraits to photos of extant examples that can be found online. When I find these examples I note a few important things.

1)   How many elements where usually used?

2)   What was the size of the elements used relative to the size of the hats?

3)   What part of the hat was covered by decoration and how much was not covered?

4)   Most fashion plates are in black and white, I pay special attention to the color ones and note the colors used.

5)   Also extant hats are sometimes faded if I can glean the original colors I take note of that.

6)   Another important thing to note is the range. Most hats from the late 19th C are highly decorated but there are always a few that are simpler. Some fashion plates and photographs put the hats in context; you might take note when you see simpler hats. Do you think it is in relation to an individuals taste or because a certain event or social status might have dictated the style; say work vs. a social event, suffragette vs. socialite or suburban everyday vs. widow? This range can give you some wiggle room to design a hat that might fit your own personal style and your character’s station.

Edouard Manet, Boating, 1874. This is a very simply decorated hat with flowers almost the color of the straw, ribbon ties in a dark brown color and veiling that makes a bow in back.

Another thing to think about, is the hat you are designing going to match an existing garment or be the start of a costume or not match and be a complimentary element to the garment?

Edouard Manet, Sur la Plage 1873 I think this might be the same hat as in the 1874 boating painting. It caused me notice that there is an edging around the brim of the dark color that matches the ribbon and the ribbon tie seems to go under the flowers on the top of the hat, which is more easily done, and I think more likely.

1) If matching an existing garment then, I round up all the leftovers and decide what is usable for a hat. Can I cover the hat with some of the garment fabric or make bows out of the fabric or is there ribbon or trim I want to use? You need not use everything or even stick 100% to the color scheme of the garment. I usually use one or two things from the garment and make them the focal point for the hat. It could be the largest element or perhaps the only most brightly colored element of the hat. All the other elements that you pick for the hat should harmonize with the major element.

2) If it is the beginnings of a costume then I work backwards. I choose things for the hat and figure just what will also work on the garment. If I need more elements for the garment then I make sure whatever I choose harmonizes with the elements of the hat. This might indeed be the way things where done in the day, a milliner is not just a hatter for women a milliner also sold trims, dresses and other accessories. You could go to a milliner and have them design your entire outfit.

Edouard Manet, Im Café: Cabaret von Reichshoffen 1878.This is a very simple everyday hat.

3) If no elements from the hat will match or even be the same color as your garment then just make sure that the colors do not clash. It might be a good thing to use the same type of trim or ribbon but in the different color. If you use a gimp braid in your costume use some of the same gimp but in the different color on your hat. The same goes for jacquard ribbons they often come different colors and it would be a nice touch, to have the same thing on both the garment and hat, it will tie things together even without them being the same color.

If the hat is to be the beginnings of an outfit or a compliment to one then you need to decide on a color plan. What season is it planned for? Usually darker colors for winter and lighter for summer. It is a help to choose one of the six below before you begin. Is the hat going to be basically one color? If this is your choice it is still important to have variation in the sheens and textures of the elements in the hat and maybe some slight differences in the shades of that color.

  1. Is the hat going to be basically one color? If this is your choice it is still important to have variation in the sheens and textures of the elements in the hat and maybe some slight differences in the shades of that color.
  2. Is the hat going to be limited to two very distinct colors like black and white?
  3. Is the hat going to be limited to two graphic colors with a third that would be limited to one accent piece?
  4. Is the hat going to be many vibrant colors?
  5. Is the hat going to be many earthy colors such as fall colors?
  6. Is the hat going to be pastels?

Sticking to one of these plans really helps me focus on choosing elements.

If I really can’t come up with a color scheme, here is what I do, I grab or go shopping for something that has a mix of colors I really like. It can be anything; a piece of fabric, a set of color swatches from the paint store, a photo of a period hat or maybe a precious piece of ribbon or trim you got a few years back, any of these can make a great starting place. Just keep it with you thru the process of picking your elements. This Victorian Tall Hat is a great example I would never have picked these colors to go together unless I had not been given the gorgeous piece of vintage trim. Working off the trim I was able to pick fabrics, ribbon and a faux wing all of which really pulled the design together.

Hand colored engraved image from Demorest Monthly Magazine, 1876. Note the major detail element of the gown for each of the two outfits.

If you are making the hat for yourself then stick to colors that look good on you with your coloring, a hat can look period and still be your colors. You do not need to be limited to those colors but make sure that if you are adding decorative elements close to you face you use colors that look good on you. Those can be flowers, net or lining that will be on the under brim of the hat.

There is a wealth of information on color design on the web. It could be worth a look if you have forgotten everything you ever knew about the color wheel, primary, secondary, tertiary, and things like complementary colors. But our real goal is to design something that looks like it came from the late 19thcentury not fit the ideal of a good modern color design.

A good illustration of a milliner’s shop. From the Danish “Punch” magazine (not the British Punch), 1876 September, No 37.

Once I have “the look” and my color plan in my mind I “shop my stash”. It’s a good idea to have either the hat or a piece of paper about the size of the hat with you when you are choosing your elements. This will make it more difficult to pick too many or too few elements. If you are making a late 19th C hat then a file folder is a good choice not many hats where larger than that and file folders are good to contain drawings or prints of the hat you want to make.

Once you have picked out all the things in your stash that you really think you are going to use staple small swatches of the elements inside the folder this will help when and if you need to go shopping for more. If something you plan to use is vintage and you don’t want to cut even an inch off then staple a zip lock bag to the folder and stow it in the bag. This is good for snippets of feathers as well. I have found over the years that besides the things I know I want to use I always seem to pick one or two extra things that are just possibilities and in the end I dis

card one or more of them but, it’s good to have options.

The Danish “Puk” 1894. This is another example of another two-color hat where the two colors are in the outfit.
ModeArtistique, Mai,1880, This hat is a good example of a graphic two-color hat that matches the outfit.

Grands Magasins d Nouveautes; Aux Classes LABORIEUSES 1897

This hat is a great example of the overly decorated hats that where in vogue in the late Victorian time period. There are two different kids of plumes, ribbon not only on the top of the brim but also on the under brim as well, pearls and small flowers. Every inch is covered with decorations.

Taken from the cover of the Millinery Trade Review-New York showing a bust portrait of Jane Harding, wearing a hat designed in the Paris establishment of Madame Carlier. 1897. This a fantastic example of a monochromatic hat with one touch of color in the base of the large flower that matches the collar of the blouse. This really ties everything together the blouse also seems to be a very light shade of the primary color of the hat.

Taken from the cover of the Millinery Trade Review-New York showing bust portraits of Baronne de Carlsberg and Suzanne, actresses at the Gymnase theater, Paris, wearing hats designed in the Paris establishment of Madame Carlier. 1897

The Baronne’s hat  is somewhat pastel except for the cluster of leaves and berries that are the focal point of the hat. Note that the focal point of the hat is now in the front of the hat, as a general rule after the bustle period the focal points moved from the back in both outfits and hats.  Suzanne’s hat is in a variety of pastel shades and like many hats from this period (late 1890’s) has an element that juts up from the center of the hat giving it sometimes about an extra foot of height.

Peterson’s Magazine Oct. 1884. The hat on the left is a great example of the addition of a color that is not in the outfit that becomes a focal point. All the other colors in the hat seem to also be in the outfit. The other two hats in the plate have hats that match the outfits.

Peterson’s Magazine Aug. 1884. The hat second from the right is a great example of a hat that only coordinates with the outfit and has no elements that are in the outfit.  The other two hats in the plate are very simply decorated; the plumes match the ribbon details in the outfits. It also breaks the rule of dark for winter and light for summer.