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French millinery workshop (1910)the Milliner’sApprenticeby Clair HughesEdith Wharton describes a dank and crowded milliner’s workshop in her novel of 1905, The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart, a New York socialite, now badly down on her luck, attempts to keep the wolf from the door as a milliner’s apprentice. Naively believing that all she needs to make a good hat is good taste, she fails miserably and is sacked – justifiably, but tragically, as it turns out.
But Lily was not wrong in believing that among openings for women at that time millinery offered work that was genteel, creative and relatively wellpaid – better than governessing. Apprenticeships were costly, however, involving high premiums and several ill-paid years. It could also be exploitative; employers often failed to teach skills and used girls as dogsbodies. And like many jobs giving women independence, suggestions of sexual availability dogged young milliners. Emma Foster’s journal of her apprenticeship in Maine in 1864 described her employer as "not a decent man", long hours worked for $2 a week and the boredom of minding the shop: “I am very tired tonight –I can’t stand it”, she wrote. But then she found work with her milliner aunt, who paid $4 and where Emma, her sister said, now "looked pretty" – and we assume, flourished.
An apprentice, if she did well, became first a ‘maker’, creating the hat body, then a ‘trimmer’, applying feathers, flowers or ribbons to the body. If she did very well she might become owner of her own business – it helped to have a sponsor. Coco Chanel launched her career when her lover, ‘Boy’ Capel, bought her a hat shop.
Wharton’s description of the fetid workroom and its ruthless proprietor obtained well into the 20th century: apprentices in 1930s Copenhagen, said Aage Thaarup (later royal milliner), spent "one year making tea, one year going to the post office, one year sewing headbands". Shirley Hex, mentor to some of today’s finest hatmakers, remembers her time as a 14-yearold apprentice in London in 1947 picking up pins, being propositioned, buying buns and making tea for £1 a week; Mary Quant in the early '50s recalls ‘Erik’s’ hot chaotic basement that smelt of cow gum.
Tea making seems essential. In the 1970s designer Wendy Edmonds was brought down to earth after college in her first job with London milliner ‘Dolores’: she sewed headbands, shopped for haberdashery – and made tea. Again girls crowded into a basement, sitting around tables where steam jets and irons over naked flames were a constant health hazard. Strict hierarchies operated, and workers jostled amongst themselves for prestigious hats; tyrannical head milliners or stockroom ladies terrorised apprentices.
Apprentices never saw clients – they worked on ‘heads’. Wendy remembers ‘Queenie’, a ‘head’ to which someone had added a pair of red lips. Wendy did in fact work on hats for a royal tour so clearly did better than poor Lily Bart. But after a few years she moved on, realising that unless you owned the business there was little hope to progress to designing hats.
Being an apprentice was tough, for millinery is an art that demands more than good taste. But there is something about hats … Stephen Jones as a fashion student noted that there was always laughter coming from the hat room – "somebody was having a better time", he realised; and to the benefit of posterity he moved into the hat room.
Clair Hughes is an independent scholar. She previously held the position of Professor of English and American Literature at the International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan. She is the author of Hats (2017), Dressed in Fiction (2005) and Henry James and the Art of Dress (2001)