Vancouver milliners getting into the hat game

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"Coming to Vancouver was a real shock,” says Dominique Hanke of Hive Mind Millinery. “I missed the confidence of European style,” she explains, adding that this translates into “dressing up”. When the soft-spoken Brit arrived here seven years ago, the West Coast’s laid-back approach to fashion sparked a desire to create something many think of as decorative. The outlet to combat her malaise: millinery.

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“It was literally a case of I decided I wanted to learn to make hats,” she says. “So I did. But it’s a hard skill to get ahold of.”

Fellow milliner Jessica Fortin of Milliness agrees. The road that led her to the millinery trade wasn’t straightforward either. The Emily Carr University of Art + Design grad turned to hat-making after becoming involved in Vancouver’s booming burlesque scene. When Fortin couldn’t find the right headpieces to suit the performers of the Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society, she learned to make them herself, securing an internship with local master milliner Claudia Schulz.

Hanke and Fortin have agreed to meet the Georgia Straight at the Victorian curio shop that is Yaletown’s Goorin Bros. hat store (where Fortin is assistant shopkeeper). Time is tight, since this is one of the busiest times of the year in the local hat game.

On Saturday (July 26), the Deighton Cup will see 1,500 well-heeled—and more importantly, well-hatted—men and women converge on Hastings Racecourse for a day at the races. Many in the crowd will be sporting bespoke pieces by Hanke and Fortin, echoing a tradition that goes back more than 300 years to England’s first Ascot race in 1711.

From the start, the aristocracy seized upon Ascot as a chance to flaunt their wealth and sophistication. By the 19th century, men wore a morning suit and a loose cravat that eventually took on the name of the event. Women, for their part, donned ever more elaborate headgear. This tradition continued in the U.S. with the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875, despite that country’s antimonarchical beginnings.

“The more embellished the hat, the more refined the lady,” says local costume historian Ivan Sayers, interviewed by phone, of the prevailing attitude of the time. “Like the women who wore them, their function was beauty and pure ornament.”

Thankfully, Sayers notes, women moved beyond their role as living dolls. In the 1960s, with the advent of free-lovin’ hippies and the feminist movement, hat-wearing declined, throwing most milliners out of business. However, Hanke and Fortin say elaborate hats have a place in today’s society.

“For an event like the Deighton Cup, it’s all about go big or go home,” says Hanke, whose fascinators (large hair decorations for women worn on a band or clip) and hats range in price from $150 to $750. “When the timing or the event is there, people will make the effort [to dress up].”

“They just need the excuse,” adds Fortin. Fascinators and hats in her Milliness line run $80 to $200, and her custom work on hats sold at Goorin Bros. (1188 Hamilton Street) ranges from $12 to $60. “Milliners like to test their boundaries and experiment with bigger themes. A garden party or a race day is a terrific chance to have fun—for the guests and for us!”

“There’s an artistry to it, and I think it’s unfair that people overly slam Vancouver for being too casual,” Hanke says. “More and more people are inclined to try to be part of what we’re doing, and attitudes have changed. If people didn’t like or want what we do, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”

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colleen tsoukalas
and there's always the fabulous William Walker, a Vancouver iconic hat maker, designer and bon vivant, extradordinaire.
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steven schelling
colleen - I have never heard of William Walker. The images on his (admittedly geocities-style) website are inspired. Why all the hate from the -10 down votes?
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