Just one hat Bruni Nigh’s Millinery Couture This San Francisco milliner has never made a hat twice. People who think hats are not for everyone, Bruni Nigh proves them wrong... “THERE WAS A TIME WHEN A woman would never walk outside without a hat on.” says Bruni Nigh, professional milliner and educator at the Academy of Art University. One can argue that no accessory is more endearing or lends more flair than a hat for it easily attracts and commands attention. The finishing touch to any outfit, a hat exclusively completes a look while framing and highlighting the wearer’s face. The hat is thus is an important accessory with a long historical tradition. Though the recent popularity of hats has dwindled and the millinery art has suffered, Nigh insists that they are slowly making their way back to the scene, one hat at a time. BRUNI NIGH WAS BORN IN Germany into a family of doll makers. She grew up amongst swatches of fabric, little feathers and various scraps and materials employed in doll making and dressing. .One of the youngest children in her family, she knew early on that she did not want the life of a dollmakerforherself.
In an attempt to expose her to a different side of the family business she was sent to a larger doll factory, but not even that could squash her rebellious spirit. Luckily her godmother, also her aunt, one of the more influential and fashionable women in Coburg at the time, introduced her to what would become her calling. “She was a very well dressed person and a head turner wherever she went. I looked up to her when I was young, and she always wore a hat.” Nigh says with a smile. Her aunt had taken her to a beautiful boutique called 'Mode Eek Einmal' where the royal family attended to their millinery needs. Surrounded by the beauty and glamor of this store Nigh became utterly smitten with the millinery world. At the young age of 15 she was chosen as the only student to to apprentice with Ms. Einmal at her shop. “Ladies with poodles came in,” she explained. “That was totally different from my doll factory.” Nigh was eighteen when she completed her training in millinery. Marriage brought her to America. After tending to her domestic responsibilities and raising three beauti-
-ful children, she decided to put her German training in millinery to use in this consumer driven country. Her belief that there is at least one right hat for each individual led her to refuse the idea of continually replicating or mass producing hats. Nigh introduced herself to prospective clients through her business card, which read “Just One Hat by Bruni ”, thus bringing her European tradition of personal attention and elaborate detail to the trade. She caters to clients' personal millinery needs basing her artistic creations on passion, rather than profit. THE TERM 'MILLINER' COMES from the word 'millaner', a word used for the traveling haberdashers from Milan. Technically, a 'hat-maker' makes hats for men while a 'milliner' designs and makes hats for women.This profession has existed since a long time, but what is even more intriguing is the history of hats. Hats have been worn since time immemorial. If rumors are to be believed, head covering could have been the first use of animal skin known
to the cavemen, even before they used it as garments. The first recorded evidence of the existence of hats dates th back to 15 century B.C., from a tomb painting in Thebes, Egypt. Originally created for the sake of warmth or protection in battle, headgear became more ornamental rather than functional as time passed. Hats became a symbol of social status and high style while some also held strong religious purpose. The popularity of hats reached its peak in the th 18 century with Tricornes, picture hats and bonnets. Millinery as a profession thrived during this time. During the midth 19 century, introduction of stores which contained their own hat making departments, lead to decline of local millinery shops. During this time, hats had already started to decline in popularity due to various reasons like the World War, the Automobile revolution and popularity of elaborate hairstyling. Today hats are often worn on special occasions like weddings, horse-races, and for ceremonial and religiouspurposes. WITH MASS PRODUCTION production creeping its way into every trade, the quality of hats has decreased and eventually, the demand. According to Nigh, when people go into a store and try on a hat today it's most likely ill-fitting and stiff due to mass production, poor quality and the nonexistence of personal sizing. Nigh is not only passionate about making hats but also about promoting this accessory, which had once been indispensable part of the attire, to her clients. She holds two one-on-one sittings with her client.
During these sittings,Nigh not only educates her client about the art of wearing hats, but also becomes familiar with their presence and physical appearance, taking into account such details as coloring, face shape and hairstyle, personalizing each hat and choosing shapes and fabrics that fit each customer. One of her clients, a member of the board of the De Young, has an album of all the hats Nigh has made for her, and she says “Bruni, I'm gonna catalogue my hats, and someday when I'm not here anymore, I'm donating it to the De Young. " More than anything, this elucidates her personal relationship with her clients. Over the years, Nigh has developed this unusual knack of finding the perfect hat for any face. Her work is a manifestation of extraordinary skills in needle work, hand molding and composition. Throughout her career as a milliner she has never made anything twice. T H E M O S T C RU C I A L T O O L S in millinery are hat blocks. These blocks are made of wood or aluminum, and come in innumerable shapes and sizes. This tool is used to shape and mold the hat. These are very expensive and difficult to acquire. At occasions, Nigh has had to order a specific type all the way from Germany. Commercially made hats are limited in the materials they use, often relying entirely on velvet,
felt, straw and wool. For the milliner however, the choice of materials is endless and limited only by the artist's creativity. Bruni sources hers from near and far, “And there is always the internet, for things you cannot find”. Of her inspiration, Nigh claims anything and everything evokes her creativity. “Somehow, sometimes I see something; even just in the design of a necklace... Ideas come from everywhere, even riding a bus.” Her style and artistic flair won her praise, One of her creations, the midnight taffeta hat was displayed in the SF MOMA for a week. Her hats have also won competitions conducted during the hat races. For Nigh, millinery is not only a high art but a way of expression and transformation of her feelings into physicality . “When I feel a little gloomy or depressed,” Nigh explains. “I sit down and make a hat, and it makes me feel good. My feelings get expressed in the form of beauty.” FOR 15 YEARS NOW, NIGH HAS been passing on her traditional training to the fashion students at the Academy of Art University. She withholds her old European techniques, however she encourages her students to come up with their own alternatives and be creative. By the end of the semester, they not only know how to make the three basic kinds of hats, the fabric, straw and felt, but also know how to transform their imagination to reality. Nigh does not take any apprentices in her studio, “I do not have an assistant,” she says, “it slows me down.”
TODAY HATS ARE FINDING THEIR way back into mainstream fashion. Take for example the recent worldwide phenomenon of the royal wedding when every magazine and blog posted stories on the attendees' flamboyant headpieces. Fashion
designers are also beginning to collaborate with more milliners like Lilly Dache, Stephen Jones, and Richard Nylon. Contributing one hat at a time and one patron at a time, Nigh's passion and dedication to her craft live on in her exclusive
haute couture creations as well as in the students she nurtures. She has earned high regard from her peers, her patrons and her pupils for her extraordinary talent to create the right hat for the right person.
â€˜Just One Hatâ€™ is an article written by the students of Interpretation and Reporting of Fashion under Hersha Steinbock. We profiled Bruni Nigh as one of the founders and keepers of the Lost Arts in Fashion. Managing Editor: Uma Anupindi ; Research: Pauline Giraut, Monica Jasso Selles and Uma Anupindi Writing: Melissa Charles; Project Design: Pauline Giraut and Uma Anupindi Imagery: Pauline Giraut and Monica Jasso Selles. Special thanks to Leora Turko.