The Milliner’s Daughter by
50
(76 Stories)

Prompted By Hats

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My mother started making hats right around the time I became a teenager. This was not coincidental, I believe.

It was a good time for her  to find something to do. Not the happiest of stay-at-home mothers in the 1960s, she desperately needed an outlet. First she helped form a singing group of PTA mothers. Then Mom started taking millinery classes in the evenings and afternoons through the local adult school, and, once she had the basics down, let her creative instincts go wild.

 

She hunted around for stores that sold ribbon, trim, and fabric flowers; she got small samples of fur from my great Uncle Sam, who owned a fur salon in San Francisco. She used mink and lamb to make stylish hats for our mild California winters. Her springtime hats made of straw were adorned with flowers and ribbons in vibrant blues, pinks, and oranges.She found a shop that sold many kinds of feathers: long elegant plumes and small, colorful ones. For one creation, she spent hours painstakingly gluing pheasant feathers in overlapping rows on a stiff-backed fabric form. To help with the construction of her hats, she bought a couple of hat forms: wooden head-shaped blocks that she used to get the shape and size of her hats just right.

When I was thirteen, my family moved to a bigger house that had a walk-in closet in the hall. Bigger than a standard closet, this became her hat room. Over the years she piled the many shelves with her hat boxes, which contained the orange straw with a dipped brim; the tufted pale blue chiffon that sat like a crown on her head; the fabric pillbox she made for my sister; the black lambswool with a small decorative sword, and so many more. She made hats with sequins, with tall plumes, with veils; head-hugging cloches and wide-brimmed straw hats a la Holly Golightly.

When friends and relatives asked my mother to make hats for them, she did. Sometimes she got it right and they were pleased…and sometimes she missed the mark.

 

Although on many occasions my mother told me I had “a head for hats,” she never actually made me a hat. When we were little girls, she bought  me and my sister hats to wear to fancy events like weddings or bon voyage parties (we went to a couple the year we lived in New York). I don’t know what she meant by her observation regarding  my head and hats. I never got into wearing them, but I do love trying them on.

Appropriate for the Kentucky Derby?

 

I don’t look especially happy in the picture below on the left, but I did like the hat. And may I point out that the smiling woman in this picture with me and my sister is the famous wife of one of my dad’s Army buddies: June Taylor. My sister and I were actually June Taylor dancers (in name only) because we took tap lessons at her Manhattan studio. We are pictured here on the right with our dance stuff outside the studio. Same hat.

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure when my mother stopped making hats. After I moved away from my parents’ house, I didn’t keep track of her goings-on very much. With both daughters out of the house, my parents began doing a lot of traveling– hat-making fell by the wayside.

 

After my mother died, a few years after my dad, my sister and I faced the task of emptying out the house. Once again, we ventured into the “hat closet” and had to decide what to do with all those  boxes and leftover pieces of fabric and sizing, and the pair of wooden heads. My sister insisted on keeping many of mom’s hats, but we gave away several at the “trunk show” we put on.

In this picture, l to r: orange straw, with flowers around the brim; pouffy blue chiffon; blue fabric pillbox with black trim; tall velvet hat with feather and rhinestone trim; blue flower cloche with pink rose; flowered fabric with pink chiffon band, black knitted pillbox with sequin trim; maroon felt hat with long feather; something pink I can’t identify; cloche with pale apricot fabric flowers.

I wish I had more pictures of her wearing her hats, but here are a couple

 

Here she is at a wedding, wearing a flower-bedecked cloche in spring colors,me in that same big-brimmed number.

Wearing the blue chiffon, with my sister in her pillbox and me with a red beret

 

 

 

 

 

On this chart of greatest hat hits from the ’60s, I see a few familiar forms. Many of these styles were among the creations she proudly wore for years. When the times and styles changed, and hat-wearing occasions were no more, my mother’s hats were carefully nestled in tissue paper and placed in big round boxes, stacked high on the shelves of the hat closet.

 

 



Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Thanx for the wonderful memories of your creative mother Risa! My mother was also gifted with her hands, had a sewing machine and altho not a milliner, could make curtains and slipcovers and occasionally clothes, and was a whiz at hemming and alterations.

    I remember often standing on the living room coffee table, turning slowly as she pinned my dress or skirt while from his armchair my father smiled at us over his newspaper.

  2. Suzy says:

    Risa, I imagine a whole book here, with that great title! We’ve been seeing you in that wonderful white hat for as long as you’ve been on Retrospect, so I’m not surprised you have the perfect hat story. I’m delighted to learn about your mother, the milliner, and all her creations. Your descriptions of her craft and your pictures are equally fabulous. Thanks for this story!

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thank you, Suzy! I wish I had pictures of some of her more outlandish creations! She got a little wild with some of them. I can’t think of many occasions these days (pandemic notwithstanding) when a person would wear hats like that. I just re-watched “The Sting,” and marveled at how good those guys looked with their hats! Bring them back!

  3. Oh Risa, I do see the similarity in our childhood hats (although I think mine had a rounded crown). Both so fresh and cute!

    I wish I’d had a mother like yours when I signed up for a hat contest at the local department store, made one out of brightly colored construction paper daisies attached to a paper plate with that curly ribbon to tie it under my chin, then showed up only to find each and every girl in a couture concoction, a millinery masterpiece of fine fabric, veiling, trim, and hatpins. I ditched my hat in the ladies restroom and snuck away.

    I always liked your profile photo…you look great in a hat!

    • Risa Nye says:

      Barbara, what a great story! I should’ve had a clue about my mom and hats when she made me and all my party guests pilgrim hats out of brown paper bags for my November birthday (I was around 5, I think). Not very stylish. One year for Purim, she made costumes and matching hats in the shape of hamantashen for me and my sister. I have the pictures to prove it!

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your mother sounds like a truly creative person, Risa. How wonderful that her outlet was something practical like great hats! You’ve always looked wonderful in your profile photo, which has you wearing a hat, so I agree with your mother’s assessment that you have a good head for hats. The ones she made sound amazing, I also, wish you had more photos, but your descriptions are a treat.

    How fun that you and your sister took dance classes at the June Taylor Dance Studio. I remember those dancers so well from the Jackie Gleason Show…that brings back memories!

    The last photos of styles of hats from that era looks like something from my Barbie Doll catalogs. I have my originals, from 1959 (pony tail, no bouffant hair), all the clothing, accessories and original catalogs of clothing that I’d want to receive as gifts for upcoming events. Those hats (and even the illustrations) fit right in. I collected for several years, so have catalogs into the early ’60s.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, Betsy! What I remember most about the June Taylor dancers that I met is that they talked very, very fast! Funny what impresses you when you’re six years old! I’m impressed about your Barbies! I have a good story about dolls if a prompt ever rolls around about them. I loved making clothes for my Barbie!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a delightful story of your mother’s hat creations. I’m glad you and your sister kept some and photographed others. And you do look great in hats. I love the one in your featured image that you use for your profile picture.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, Laurie! That profile picture was just a quick moment–I grabbed that hat off my son’s head and put it on. My husband snapped the picture and I thought it was good enough to use as my author photo for my book (after a friend photo shopped a guy behind me out of the picture)!

  6. Marian says:

    What a treat, Risa, to see all those creative hats your mother made, how you looked as a young person in your hats, and the final trip down memory lane with all those 60s hat favorites. I’m so glad you could celebrate your mom’s creativity.

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