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What is Millinery?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Millinery has two definitions. It can refer to hats and various accessories made for women, and it can also refer to the actual production end of the hat making business, especially when such hats are designed for women. The term hatter tended to refer to hat makers who created hats for men, and possibly also women, but in general the milliner created hats for women alone.

The term millinery may be relatively unrecognized by many people today. In general, we tend not to wear hats to complete each outfit. There are some exceptions; certain religions may require covering the head when going out. In other cases, many people still wear hats to church. As a general rule though, we don’t look upon the hat as the essential fashion accessory that it was in the past.

In earlier centuries, though, millinery was an important profession, given the high demands for hats for daily wear and formal occasions. It was additionally a profession that was held by many women: hats made by women for women. Being a milliner was thought decent and respectable employment for women of the 18th and 19th century, and the early 20th century. A survey of workers in the 1900s in the US found that there were approximately 82,000 female milliners working at that time. Today the field has opened to include many more male milliners, especially when hats are made in design houses, which tend to be dominated by male designers.

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You can also use the term millinery to refer to the decoration of pre-made hats. The artful bow, feathers, ribbon, or other added to a hat is considered part of being a milliner. Some people are especially skilled at taking simple hats and turning them into works of art, and they may pursue this profession as hobbyists or create beautifully decorated hats as a full time business.

Even though the hat does not have quite the same place in women’s fashion that it occupied in the past, there are still many in the field of millinery today. You can take hat-making courses at fashion design schools, community colleges and the like, and there are even professional millinery associations throughout the world. Most design houses still employ milliners or have a millinery department, since there are many, especially those who wear high-end fashion, who still wear hats regularly. For example, Queen Elizabeth II, and actually any female member of the royal family in present day, frequently wears hats when appearing in public. Moreover, some people work to make costume hats; a period film or play would almost be unrecognizable without plenty of hats of that time period.

Shops dedicated solely to the display and sale of women’s hats are harder to come by. If you look at large department stores, you may find a few dress hats, and some that serve the purpose of keeping the head warm, or the face shaded, rather than being much of a fashion statement. You will find though that there are still many exceptional designers in the millinery field, though their creations may be considerably more eclectic than in times past.

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