Put a Feather in Your Hat!

The only sure thing in life is change, they say, and that can certainly be said about hats! Hats have certainly had an up and down, and up again, history. They have been worn for practical, fashionable, social and other reasons. And fortunately today offers up so many choices to wear one and make it fun.

A “Hatted” History

The earliest known documented hats were from just before 3000 BC in Egypt. However, “Otzi” the “Iceman” found mummified in a mountain glacier several years ago on the Austrian/Italian border, was wearing a bearskin hat from the Bronze Age about 3300 BC. “Tollund Man” found in a Danish bog dates to about 400 BC and wore a sheepskin and wool hat, with hide ties.

Historically hats have had obvious practical uses such as to protect from sun or cold; and helmets to protect the head in certain occupations like construction, military, and in various sports from horseback riding to rock climbing and baseball. They have also been used to denote social rank such as in medieval times or membership in specific cultural groups, as well as specific armed forces and/or military rank, or being part of a police force such as the iconic RCMP “campaign” hat.

Then there’s religious and ceremonial use: an interesting Bronze Age hat is made of a single sheet of gold, likely found in Swabia or Switzerland, dating from about 1000 BC and now in a Berlin Museum. One of only four known, it was a mystery for years because of its precious material and symbols. Looking very much like a “wizard’ hat”, it was possibly used by priests from a sun cult widespread in Central Europe. Its actual function someone figured out, was displaying astronomical knowledge for a complex solar and lunar calendar to predict summer and winter solstices.

Finally, there’s always fashion! Over the last few hundred years in Europe, styles and trimmings have changed considerably over time, from the bonnets of the 18th century to the toques of today. Did you know that the term ‘milliner’ comes from “Milan”, Italy? In the 18th century it was considered that the best quality hats were made there. Historically, women filled that occupation because they not only made the hats and bonnets: they also chose the trimming details to match an outfit.

Sometimes the hat becomes a requirement. For instance, when entering the Royal Enclosure at Ascot in England, a hat is a “must” in the dress code following tradition where no one can be bareheaded in the Monarch’s presence. Ascot is of course known for some pretty outrageous examples of the milliner’s art! Other horse races have followed suit, including Canada’s Queen’s Plate. At English weddings, hats are basically “de riguer”, but in France they are worn at more formal ones.

The Guelph Hat Connection

Change was certainly the story of the Biltmore Hat Factory in Guelph. Started in 1917 by John Fried in Niagara Falls as the Fried Hat Company, after a short move to Toronto, it eventually moved to Guelph in 1919. In 1920 it was sold to three local men who renamed it “Biltmore” after the luxurious hotel in New York where one had stayed on a business trip, and expressing their ambitions for the brand. During the 20’s the company thrived, and through the “dirty thirties” where they grew by adding women’s hats in providing felt bases for milliners.

The 40’s and 50’s were good too, even allowing them to sponsor a “Junior A” hockey team called the Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters, a junior affiliate team to the New York Rangers and this kept the company name in front of the public. In 1960, the name changed to Royals and then the Kitchener Rangers when the franchise moved there in 1963. At its peak in the late 1950’s, the company expanded to new facilities on Morris Street. Immigrant women dominated the sewers finishing the hats.

By 1970 the market for felted hats had declined significantly. Through the 70’s and 80’s and despite efforts to diversify the product, it went bankrupt in 1982. The assets were bought up by Stetson Hat Co. (and Biltmore disappeared briefly), which also had to declare Chapter 11 itself in 1986. By 1988 it was bought by local investors and revived, but the ups and downs were not over yet. The last proprietor was Eric Lynes from Louisville, Kentucky, who strove to return elegance and quality to the market. When the company faltered again, it was sold to U.S.-based Dorfman Pacific, and closed its Guelph doors in Dec. 2011 forever, with production moving to Texas.

This heritage will live on now in “Biltmore Factory Towns”, a 64 unit development going up on the site of the factory by Gemini Homes, and will reflect the “hustle and bustle” of the site in the old days.

Buying a Hat Today

Despite the fact hats fell into disfavour during the 1980’s, they are on the upswing again. Hats can be bought everywhere now, but there are still a number of specialty hat makers and retailers are around. This is something I am indeed pleased about, as I love hats in the summer to shade my face and also help shield my eyes as I am light-sensitive. So why not have fun with them?

One person now filling the void is David Dunkley Fine Millinery in downtown Toronto. David is actually a “Royal Milliner”, having trained with the former milliner to the Queen Mother. David originally started his working life in a government lab, and took an evening hat making course which happened to be offered at George Brown College after a few years hiatus, for fun. He wrote to work with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother’s, Milliner in England, and the “rest is history”.

His creations he considers “sculptural”, and takes the person’s face, colouring, head, event and dress into account for the design. Some hats can take six months to make, and most of the work will be hiddenunderneath the embellishment!

Some of his clients wore his hats to the recent Royal Wedding. Jann Arden even wore one of his creations as part of the team of CTV commentators. David has also been named “Official Milliner to the running of the Queen’s Plate” for 6 years now, the first one in its 159 years! For this permission had to be given by the Crown.

But don’t think that hats are just for the ladies.  David also has a good selection for men. In terms of men’s styles, I am reminded of a 1960’s episode of “The Avengers” entitled “From Venus with Love”, where John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee as the English gentleman, was required to take an eye test that featured identifying hat styles instead of the normal letters on a chart!

There are also niche markets for hatters. Relhok Hats & Bags in Barrie started off in the harness business for horses and carriages.  As part of the “accoutrements” for showing, a hat is required, so they got into making them. Most hats are beautifully coordinated with the steed, the carriage and the outfit: a sight to behold. But they are just as beautiful for everyone else too!

Retailers who specialize in hats are coming back. BeauChapeau Hat Shop in Niagara-on-the Lake for instance actively sources and promotes Canadian, American and Fair Trade® milliners.

The Etiquette of Wearing Hats

Like everything, there is an etiquette to the wearing of hats. For one, not outshining the bride at a wedding, or the VIP at a reception, is important. Another one is not wearing a large hat in an audience which blocks the view from behind. Ladies’ hats are not worn at night, but a fascinator is okay. There was a time too, where the hostess of an afternoon tea did not wear a hat in her own home. For men, hats must always be removed when entering a building…and that includes the ubiquitous baseball cap and toque! Hats worn by the armed forces or police are the exception to this rule, of course.

So go ahead! Change it up! Wear a hat…it can be such fun!

Written By: Diana Janosik-Wronski | Photography: Anthony Manieri (Instagram @Anthonypmanieri) | Resources: David Dunkley Fine Millinery, Toronto

Author: Living Spaces

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