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A Curious Calling; Rachel Trevor Morgan, Milliner

Finally, something to take our hats off to

Written by . Published on September 19th 2011.

A Curious Calling; Rachel Trevor Morgan, Milliner

A HAT is a bit like a multi-functioning power tool. They can keep you warm or cool and make you glamorous or prim. They can be disguises or silent screams for attention. If you are a pregnant lady and you happen to meet a policeman, his hat can turn into a toilet. If you are a cowboy or a Victorian gentleman, you only have to step on a man’s hat to assault his manhood and perhaps lose your life. Hats can even operate as a scare-mongering technique, as Princess Beatrice proved earlier this year.

If you are Rachel Trevor Morgan, however, a hat is a perfectly crafted sculpture of femininity that goes on your head. Or maybe just a beautiful conversation-starter. Overlooking a cobbled, gas-lit side street off St James, her studio wouldn’t look out of place in Dickensian times. And you wouldn’t expect anything less from the Queen’s own hat maker. Although perhaps not as curious as The Mad Hatter implied, a craft so embedded with history still deserves some attention.

Was it difficult to start out?
It’s been a slow growing process. The great thing about millinery is you don’t need a lot of equipment or money to start out. If you’ve got a few hat-blocks you can do it. I did an apprenticeship with Graham Smith, for about three years. I was taking a year out before I went back to college. I wrote to lots of hat makers during that year. I thought I’d go and have a look and somebody offered me a job. It was all by mistake really.

In those days, you had big workrooms of fourteen girls all sewing away. It was a different business then. You had to be prepared to spend six months sewing in labels. But you get paid. It is actually a job. When you go in as a junior you’re given the simple jobs to do until you can do those well and progress onto the next thing. That way you learn the whole craft.

What is it about hats that you like?

I love the actual making of them. They’re like little sculptures. I think I had a brilliant mentor in Graham Smith because the hats he made were all flawless – that was his trademark. You knew a Graham Smith hat because the edges of the hat would be beautifully rolled and you couldn’t see a single stitch. That’s the way I learnt. I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

They look like they hatched out of a hat egg, they’re so perfect. Do you wear hats all the time?
If I’m given half an occasion to do so. But I don’t wear them as much as I should.



You mean if you were a proper lady?

There are moments when I look at certain little felt hats and think, I could just go out wearing that. But I never quite make it – in the morning it’s all about getting the children out of the door. That’s why I love looking back at the ’40s and ’50s. I had this wonderful lady in the other day who always wears a hat every time she leaves the house. She comes in full couture and gloves and make-up. It looks extraordinary.


Why did people lose all that?

It’s the formality that we’ve lost. But with hats people really want to wear them, they just need to find the excuse or the nerve. Immediately when you put a hat on, you stand differently. But you can go to a wedding now and be one of just a handful of people wearing a hat.

It’s been very interesting with the Royal Wedding and all the interest from the U.S. You get the impression from Americans that they’re all itching to wear them, but they won’t because nobody else does.

How long do they take to make?
It varies enormously. With the flowers we dye the fabric, cut the petals, roll them and shape them. Making a bunch of flowers in itself can take a day or more. It’s very much couture hat making – we do everything here. We’ve got a workroom two floors up. When people come in, you see their outfit and pick out different colours then we hand die each piece to match.


Copyright Rachel Trevor-Morgan - Style R1172

Can you instantly envisage the perfect hat for a dress?
I start off by chatting to the client to get to know whether they normally wear hats and what kind of hats they like. You can tell a lot in just a few minutes. And then we try on lots of different types. If you go into a hat department, you’re looking for a hat that happens to match your outfit and isn’t necessarily always the hat that suits you best. Here, I can try on lots of different shapes and styles and whittle it down to one that fits. You can tell when someone has found the right hat – their face changes. Their eyes get all excited. Then you take that hat for the shape and style and work from there.


Does it make you sad to see so many things factory produced?
I don’t like the throwaway notion. I like to buy clothes that you keep and look after. But I have no problem with factory hats. You want people to be able to afford to buy them. But there are less and less hat departments around. A lot of the hat departments left sell hats that are all a bit same-y and uninteresting. I find that depressing because it puts people off. Everybody becomes so price conscious that things get taken down and down until it’s not worth buying them at all. I say, if you’re going to some occasion, buy a really simple dress and spend the money on a hat. It’s the hat that will stand out and be remembered.

What is it like making the Queen’s hats?
Obviously she has a style that works for her. It’s a great honour. She’s so much in the public eye. She’s worn more hats than anybody else, you know, ever.

Does she have a hat room where she keeps them all?
I don’t know actually. I suppose she has lots of rooms to keep them in.

To read about more curious callings, please click here



Photographs by Catherine Harbour

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