Immy Howard Millinery’s Guide: A Hat for Every Head

When asked what makes a successful piece of millinery, legendary hat maker, Stephen Jones, answered, ‘I think it’s very simple. It needs to make someone happy. Hats, to me, are the ultimate glamour accessory; from a subtle beaded fascinator to a wide-brimmed textural piece, they can transform an entire outfit and add the perfect finishing touch. As a fellow milliner for bridal and events wear, this quote from Jones has resonated with me and is something I always try to bring to my own designs and creations.

With a myriad of styles and shapes to choose from, the ever-evolving world of hats is something I am constantly inspired by. While this broad scope of choice may, at first seem overwhelming, I believe that this is also the very thing that makes hat making and hat-wearing so exciting and accessible. The journey of finding the perfect hat to suit you is, to me, a magical one, and something I absolutely love being part of with my clients. Above anything, hats should be fun! Gone are the restrictions of who wears them- from headbands and hair bows to structural, wearable art, there is something out there to suit everyone, for any occasion.

Taking its routes from an 18th Century painting by the Royal Family’s then favourite portrait artist, Thomas Gainsborough, the wide-brimmed, ostentatiously decorated ‘Gainsborough hat’ or ‘picture hat’ has evolved over the years into one of the most luxurious statement headpieces available today. Named such as the brim of the hat was thought to ‘frame’ the wearer’s face like a picture, a Gainsborough can complement many hairstyles well, whether the brim is straight, sloped, or wired at an angle. Cartwheel and saucer hats are a chic way to incorporate a statement, shaped brim into your ensemble, offering scope for a variety of gorgeous trims, ribbons, or perhaps even handmade flowers.

Textural waves made of crinoline are an elegant way to add volume to your hat, while still maintaining the overall silhouette. Sinamay is a popular textile used when creating these headpieces as it is lightweight, goes well with most other materials, and is easy to manipulate through the method of blocking. Once soaked, sinamay can be moulded into a multitude of sculptural shapes, curls, petals, bows and more, making it totally possible to create the perfect headpiece.

Available in a spectrum of colours with the possibility to dye and colour match to an outfit, this material is always a success and something I love to use when making events wear pieces. When donning your statement hat, the angle in which you may like to wear it is, to me, all important. For a vintage, Dior-inspired look, try positioning a flat, wide-brimmed hat tilted slightly back on your head in a ‘halo’ style to accentuate the face and hair. This can be secured with elastic, combs, or hairpins. Alternatively, a bell-shaped brim, sloping downward and sitting just above the eyes works well worn straight on the head for that iconic silhouette, reminiscent of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Cartwheel hats often look very successful pinned to the wearer’s head at an angle, complemented by an updo or tumbling Hollywood waves over one shoulder.

Contrary to the silhouette of a Gainsborough, but still taking its inspiration in vintage design, is the slightly more subtle but beautiful cocktail hat. Versatile due to their delicate size, these headpieces can be easily fastened into the hair with a comb or hairpins, or even a fabric-covered Alice band, making them quick to slip on and off. For a smaller face or shorter hairstyle, a cocktail hat is a perfect complement.

Traditionally made in felt, these hats can range from small, circular bases, set at an angle and decorated with a myriad of beautiful trims, to a slightly larger shape to perch and cover more of the wearer’s head. The pillbox hat is one of the most classic cocktail styles, popularised by milliners in the 1930s. These can be made in a variety of materials and sit well atop a colour matched outfit for a truly vintage look. Paired with a birdcage veil is a lovely way to transform your hat into the ultimate chic formal accessory, perfect for weddings and special occasions.

What I love most about a cocktail hat is how the size of it lends itself so well to decorations. One only has to look at the many sumptuous Philip Treacy headpieces worn by Princess Eugenie to see what amazing things can be achieved when working with a smaller space. Accent colours from your outfit can come through in beadwork or binding while complementing a fabric covered or even straw base to set your look apart from the crowd. A round, button base is a perfect starting point for a cocktail hat and sculptural, wired bows, curled into structural shapes to add volume and detail to a wearer’s look, go well with many hairstyles and colours.

Millinery is a truly timeless art form, and one of my favourite pieces to make has to be the iconic silhouette of the boater. Traditionally made with straw, this hat has been interpreted in a multitude of ways over the 20th and 21st centuries and is constantly being revitalised. Whether you’re off to a Regatta or a Ladies’ Day and are looking for something elegant and easy to slip on, or searching for a suave, chic addition to a wedding or evening event, boaters can offer the perfect complement to a variety of outfits and hairstyles.

The clean-cut and crisp silhouette can be achieved through the method of traditional hat blocking over a wooden form using soaked material, steam, and pins, and suits hair best either pinned up or rolled into a vintage fashion, or down in a flowing style, where the volume of the hair can accentuate the wearer’s face and complement the hat. Along with straw, wool felt is another lovely alternative for a boater, making it slightly more seasonal and offering different scope for decorations and trimmings.

Petersham ribbon does not have to be the only accompaniment to your boater, by any means! If you’re after a classic headpiece with a non-traditional twist, a vintage beaded, wire worked sideband is a beautiful alternative to the traditional ribbon. For a truly unique interpretation, a shaped brim is a wonderful way to transform your hat into a showstopper, topped off with a round or even heart-shaped crown! The boater can slip easily on and off without a fastening, or, for a more angular, perched look, subtle loops of elastic can be incorporated into the piece, enabling the wearer to pin it into any hairstyle with ease and comfort.

With so many options of fastenings available, it is possible to wear just about anything on your head these days, which I totally love! The world of millinery is fruitful and exciting, and there are so many possibilities out there if you’re looking for a statement piece that strays from the norms of classic styles. Mixing textures and fabrics is something I love to do within my work, and I am always experimenting with new materials and techniques to create something with a unique twist that is rooted in the traditional craft. I love exploring these ideas with my clients, and live by the ethos that ‘anything is possible’.

With the right finishing touches and trimmings, a hat can be transformed into a piece of timeless wearable art. Feathers never cease to amaze me- be it bold, shapely pheasant quills, wired and curled into a variety of styles, or smaller, coque feathers that can be cut and shaped and built up into a beautifully delicate structure that sways with the wearer’s movements. For a particularly opulent look, combining feathers into a large, sculptural pom pom so that they blossom out of the sphere is a sumptuous way to top off your ensemble. Why not incorporate a few choice shades to accent your outfit? Or go for something completely contrasting and different? That’s what I love about contemporary millinery and going bespoke; there really are so many possibilities, making the process of finding your perfect hat enjoyable, exciting, and above anything, a happy one.

Immy Howard Millinery

Immy Howard is a milliner from Oxford, making bespoke hats and headpieces for bridal and events wear, based in the heart of the city. Her pieces, all handmade, range from beaded wire crowns and tiaras to statement hats and headwear perfect for The Races and other special occasions. Immy believes that, when it comes to millinery, anything is possible and that there is a hat to suit every head! Get in touch with her to make your dream headpiece a reality.