The Milliner’s Tale: The Craft Of Hat Making Uncovered At METC

By Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta

Monika Stebbins loved hats since childhood. “My aunt kept me in hats and I didn’t care that no one else was wearing them,” she remembered fondly.

Stebbins, who has a millinery degree and owns The Hat Shop in Madison, presented “The Milliner’s Tale: The Craft of Hat Making” at the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts (METC) on Sun., April 24.

The idea of this exhibit was floating around METC for some time now according to Deborah Farrar Starker, the museum’s executive director.

“Having a different exhibit focusing on women as business people and craftspeople was one of our goals,” she said.

The Milliner’s Tale examined the millinery trade from the 18th to 20th century, when middle class women were carving out a niche for themselves. Stebbins said that during this time, “Life was structured by rules. Trouble came when women had independent spirit. An honorable woman would not have a business. Puritanism was running deep.”

By the mid-19th century, women began to take their place as business owners who could make their own way in the world, though it was unknown exactly how many failed and how many succeeded, according to Stebbins.

Millinery had a simplistic approach. A middle class little girl would start needlecraft at a young age and then the hobby turned into a profit. It was a business where little starting money was needed – just a thimble and needle.

The hats featured in the exhibit began as far back as 1780. In early American history most towns had at least one milliner who custom-made hats for women in town. Bonnets were all the rage throughout the 1800s.

From 1880 to 1960, with the advent of commercially-made hats, independent milliners existed alongside large department stores like Macy’s.

The exhibit featured a pink hat circa 1940, made with velour, fur, felt, and velvet with an egret plume inserted into the felt, secured on the inside. The hat was made by Caspar David, a male Hollywood milliner who designed headwear for the stars. During this period men began to design and trim hats – filling niches once occupied solely by women.

From 1960 to the present, hats became expressive to a woman’s wardrobe, rather than a necessity. Though the majority of women bought hats from department stores, the independent millinery survived and continued to create beautiful custom-made hats.

For something truly unique, women today still go to contemporary milliners, as millinery is a craft still very much alive!

One of the modern hats featured was the Leather Cloche, a softer version of the leather biker cap, trimmed in leather fringe and buttons with an asymmetrical partial brim giving the piece an exclusive look.

In addition to hats, also displayed are some of the tools of the trade from the collection of METC.

This exhibit will run until June 29. For more information, visit:

Visit Monika Stebbins’ hat shop website at:

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