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Millinery:

The New Era

The age-old art of millinery is slowly changing: on the eve of Ascot, Emma Bigg finds out how...

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In the midst of the ridiculous and absurd, you have the opportunity to stand out as an elegant, modern woman with a great taste in fashion

millinery. Traditionally men’s hats would represent their status while a woman’s hat would go as far as to signify her marital status. Thankfully in our post-feminist world, we are able to use hats to express our identity and social attitudes in a fun and creative way. Regardless of the era we live in, be it Bohemian, Romantic or Modern; millinery rules were made, stretched, broken and altered. But it is at Royal Ascot where the boundaries of taste and style are frequently pushed, and often overstepped. Pork pies, masks and mobile phones are just some of the items that have adorned the heads of attendees at the most famous race in the world over the years. The stylish tradition of Ascot originates from the Belle Epoque era in the late 19th and early 20th century, where extravagance and opulence was king. It was the heyday of millinery and the time when headwear came out of the shadows and became an entirely separate entity, an important piece in its own right. The ‘ascot’ hat was stylish and lavished with an array of materials: the more expensive and luxurious the better.

Champagne, stilettos and style: racing season is upon us once again. The words Ascot, Ladies and Day strike fear into the hearts of men forced to sit through hours of searching for the perfect outfit, while the nation’s women and media feel similar levels of excitement. The races mean two things: that the warm summer months are finally on their way and, most importantly, it is time to don the hats, headpieces and fascinators in a fashion show of epic proportions. Legendary fashion writer Colin McDowell has described hats as the most unnatural and unnecessary accessory available. However, it is the hat’s power to influence and inform that is its true advantage. While corsets, harem pants and tunics go in and out of fashion; hats and headpieces have remained in the minds of the population as the ultimate tool of transformation. A good hat provides you with the opportunity to become a different person and really grab the attention of those around you.

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But if the prestigious Royal Enclosure at Ascot holds 7000 people, how exactly do you stand out from the crowd? The idea of attending Ladies Day at the chicest course on the planet is sure to provide you with at least a smidge of apprehension; it is like meeting the inlaws on steroids: what to wear? Ladies day in particular is the one single day of the racing season where the jockeys, bets and races take secondary position to the women and fashion on show. “It is a parade of fabulousness and fantastical things,” says Harvy Santos, milliner and fan of all things fashion. While the average woman can’t compete with the, shall we say, more unusual headpieces on display, it is unlikely you would want to. There’s apparently no accounting for taste… In the midst of the ridiculous and absurd, you have the opportunity to stand out as an elegant, modern woman with a great taste in fashion. Simple lines and thoughtful details have just as much impact, if not

more. In addition to this, you can also cash in on the current ethical fashion trend that is sure to be a permanent fixture on the style landscape. From hoods to berets, from turbans to bowlers; hats in one form or another are worn across the world for many different reasons, be they cultural, religious or practical. The social meanings surrounding hats are complex and differ from style to style: for example the bowler hat is one of the most iconic representations of men’s power dressing in the form of a single item. And thanks to revolutionary Che Guevara and members of the French resistance in World War Two, the beret has become synonymous with covert military campaigns and quiet defiance.

During the reign of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, the chicest member of the Royal Family until Diana, Ascot became the biggest event on the fashion calendar. The most fashionable court in European history had at least some idea of the monster it was creating; fans of understated glamour, the royals are rumoured to have looked on in horror as the race goers donned increasingly excessive headpieces. From that day, the stage was set and women continue to showcase the more extreme end of millinery each summer. Ascot is a perfect, if extreme, example of the excess and wastage associated with fashion. By going ethical you have the opportunity to help the environment while being admired for your fashion choices. Harvy Santos is an ethical milliner at the very forefront of fashion, proving that being mindful of what you buy is one of the most stylish accessories around. Millinery is a secretive art. It is fashion’s unassuming and quiet counterpart. Which is why the revelation is unexpected to say the least. In a mid-terrace house in Highbury, just a stone’s throw (or should I say side-line throw) away from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, lies a hub of creativity. Hatboxes are piled high in every available corner and the walls are covered in exciting abstract canvases. This is organised artistic vision at its very best. The rooms are minimalistic, unfussy and neutral, and the polished wooden floor gives an earthly, natural feel that mirrors the creations that lie within their walls.

The idea of wearing your wealth and beliefs where everyone can see them is not a new one; themes of power, status and authority have been intertwined with headwear from the birth of

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Quirky vases used as umbrella holders and piles of material hung over the banisters do nothing to prepare you for the creative onslaught that patiently awaits you in an upstairs bedroom. The converted workshop is a hidden grotto of colour, textures and costumes that I couldn’t have dreamed up if I tried; from fully embroidered waistcoats to Dalek dresses (don’t ask). This is the home of Harvy Santos, ethical milliner and ex-ballet dancer. Originally from Hong Kong, Harvy spent over 10 years in the Hong Kong ballet before he moved to London to establish and work on his fashion label Harvash, “I get really inspired being here in London which is the hub of arts and theatre, compared to Hong Kong where there is limited performing and fine arts.” Millinery is like any art; inspiration and ideas are the most important aspects in the creation of a piece and are the foundation for the way it is worn and the way it is seen.

“And then I enrolled in a workshop, a millinery workshop, and from that five day workshop came out over 50 hats.” He had rediscovered his calling and as a result of all the hats he made, he began to recycle them. Soon, Harvash hats would become ethical. Each hat is entirely unique, designed, created and fitted by the man himself. “They are recycled definitely. I have got some hats that I have made before that I wasn’t happy with anymore so I would destroy them and turn them into another hat. It’s one of a kind really.” The debates surrounding the use of chemicals and fur in fashion have been raging for decades and the rise of ethical fashion in the past few years has put the spotlight on how we as consumers affect the world around us. The use of pesticides in cotton is gradually being weaned out, as the effects they have on the environment and people farming them have made it socially unacceptable. “I don’t get to use a lot of materials, none of them are dyed and the stiffeners are water based,” says Harvy.

“It’s a discovery of shapes, it’s discovering fabric, materials and manipulating feathers,” says Harvy, “I was a full time dancer so my creation then was very limited but when I could I would help in the costume department.” Judging from the amount of old ballet costumes in his workshop, his time as a professional ballet dancer has certainly left its mark.

He is also specific about the types of furs and feathers he has to use when making hats, “I’m not into big fur. Hat bodies are basically made with rabbit fur. They are edible and it is not as cruel as killing a polar bear. But I am against killing animals unless it is for survival and I don’t think I’ll use exotic birds.”

“When I was in the Hong Kong Ballet I wasn’t making hats but I was obsessed with putting things on peoples heads. I would make headdresses back then without any background in millinery.” When Harvy made the decision to move to London, the shock exposure to the strict and competitive world of fashion almost caused him to finish with millinery.

Harvy uses a large variety of common feathers such as turkey and quills due to their abundance, taking them only from birds that have been killed for the purpose of food. The rare and more unusual feathers he uses are from birds that have naturally moulted, and he has also received some as gifts from birds that have been found in the countryside.

In the midst of the ridiculous and absurd, you have the opportunity to stand out as an elegant, modern woman with a great taste in fashion

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“There are a lot of women that wear hats backwards and they have no idea”

Harvash hats are not only ethical, a big plus in the fashion world today, they are also tailored directly to the person they are made for, “it is a matter of getting to know the person and what really looks good and what accentuates the beauty of the person,” Harvy explains. The art of millinery is a complicated one that involved more than just a vision. Skill and knowledge of what looks good on different people are key to a successful hat, and in turn a stylish Ascot. “A lot of women actually match their outfits with their hats, which I see as a little bit boring. I think it can be brightened up a little bit and it can still be elegant.” Harvy describes getting ready for the races as painting a picture; covering a blank canvas in a lot of red or blue paint with just a hint of flesh to break it up. He cannot emphasise enough the importance of colour, and how essential a hat is in completing an outfit and creating a focus, “Hats do create a big statement because when you look at people you look at their faces, you look at their heads. If their head is dressed you zoom in straight at their faces.” He is keen to show that anyone can wear a hat and is also pleased to show his clients how to wear a hat correctly. “There are a lot of women that wear hats backwards and they have no idea. There are a lot of mistakes and that’s pat of the service I’m doing. I would like my hats to be worn in a certain way.” Over the decade he spent in ballet Harvy became an expert in knowing if a headpiece is sitting right, and also what hats suit which body shape. The key for larger women is not choosing a big brimmed hat as it has the capacity to multiply the silhouette. While slimmer women tend to be easier to dress, women with a strong jaw line or a hairstyle that accentuates the shape of the face can run into complications. One tip that Harvy recommends for all women is to wear your hat at an angle, creating diagonal lines and an air of mystery.

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Millinery: The New Era