“A Milliner’s Dream” hats in the city
Story & pictures by Garry Rigby © 2014..
“A cheaper and less painful form of plastic surgery.” Isabella Blow
Firstly a cautionary tale
In “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, Milan Kundera reminds us of the very real perils faced by those wearing a hat. So easily rubbed from the page with an iron fist, wielding the most delicate of brushes…………. On a chilly day in Prague 1948, Vladimír Clementis, concerned for Klement Gottwald, removes his fur hat and places it firmly on Gottwald’s head. Clementis, later branded a bourgeois nationalist is executed in 1952 and his image erased from the photograph. But his hat remained – the persistence of memory and celluloid more easily destroyed than the work of a good milliner.
“I’m investigating things that begin with the letter M. Moron. Mutiny. Murder. Mmm-malice.” The Mad Hatter. (Later charged with murdering time). Lewis Carroll
Princess, pauper, bishop or barbarian, we all need a good hat. And a good hat can only come from a good milliner, and no other city in the world offers such a wide range of discerning clients than London…A Milliner’s Dream. Bicorne, boater, derby, fedora, panama, pillbox, shtreimel, and snood; Agrafe, bouillonned, capote, lame ruche, and tulle coulisse…….. the milliner requires a full palette to satisfy the cities’ perspicacious hat wearers.
“For no matter what the world, men who deal in headwear are men to be trusted above any other.” Hatter M: Volume One – The Looking Glass Wars. Frank Beddor
London provides the most creative milliners working today. But none have survived quite so long as the man in Beauchamp Place, and milliner to the most photographed woman in the world.
John Boyd the last man standing
“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi” * Il Gattopardo. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Transformation and seduction with the most wicked man in Beauchamp Place. At one time in its history Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge could boast 44 milliners. Now there is just one. John Boyd. As with the prince from Limpedusa’s “The Leopard”, John has realised *if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change, and John has been changing and making hats for over 70 years. Milliner to Baroness Fermoy, her daughter Frances Shand Kydd, her granddaughter Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Anne, Princess Michael of Kent, Baroness Thatcher, Lady Soames, Vicountess Daventry and Capucine with Douglas Fairbanks Jr on her arm, John continues to dress women with hats dangerous enough to seduce a prince, politician, polecat, oligarch and onlooker. But where is all this millinery? Mayfair appears bereft, whereas Tottenham is a veritable symphony of head gear from shtreimels to snoods. But of course, in the finer parts of town, hats are kept for a very different reason……. ‘the bait’.
“My first hat was thrown back at me by an outraged woman in Chelsea. I was young and she looked like my mother so thats the hat I made….plain and solid as rock. Quite a nice line and very suitable for a lady in her late 50’s. She screamed ‘You beast! I’m looking for a new husband not trying to get rid of one’, and threw it at me.” John Boyd
Who is this 89 year-old Scotsman, a seemingly gentle soul making battle gear for women off to seduce and transform the world and themselves? Scotland has given us its fair share of Generals from Campbell to Mackenzie; Boyd continues the line with slightly lighter materials.
Warmth and protection, affiliation, heirarchy, and rites of passage. Tools to frighten an enemy, entice a soul to God and ensnare a lover. John can boast the heads of royalty, and the talent to dress three generations of the same family. He designs a hat for the women before time and fashion, for her individual and unique face. The woman wears the hat. But how has John himself survived? Who will seduce the seducer? Where is this Merlin of milliners Morgan le Faye? Enter Sarah stage right….
“Making hats isn’t just a romantic story of sitting there waiting for some great creation to come. Millinery is deception all the time. If a client’s nose isn’t straight you twist her hat brim slightly the opposite way to straighten it. If she’s got two chins, you give her a face lift by tying a veil under one of them. The wearer doesn’t deceive, I do it for them.”
1925. The Beginning.
Fitzgerald publishes “The Great Gatsby”, Bernard Shaw wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, Coward’s “Fallen Angels” premieres in London, Mussolini drops all pretense of democracy, Trotsky is thrown out of the military, Constantine is thrown out of Constantinople, Atatürk bans the fez, the cloche and flapper are roaring round the dance floor, the Scots beat the English at Murrayfield 14-11, John Logie Baird turns on the TV, while George V, in between stamp collecting and cigarettes informs Stanley Baldwin (all wrapped up in electricity) of the redesign of the monarchy to be more inclusive of the working class. And with the sun heading north for the vernal equinox John Boyd appears in Henderson Row, Edinburgh. Himself, eventually heading in the opposite direction on his ram, Mars aflame. (Boyd, derived from the Scottish Gaelic buidh – fair or yellow; and the dexter hand of Clan Boyd – skillful, fortunate, proper, fitting). Handy for a milliner including the moto ‘confido’.
One of seven children born to an Edinburgh printer, John first began a science career working for a large rubber company in Edinburgh. Constantly sketching fashion drawings to escape the sticky milk of latex – the same substance to mould that most egalitarian of hats the baseball cap – an aquaintance, Mrs Van Altener with a ‘black book’ of high society contacts, suggested he should meet her friend Aage Thaarup, who along with Otto Lucas were the most famous and sought after names in London millinery. The Danish-born Thaarup, milliner to the Queen – and balancing Wallis Simpson for Vogue – had come to Britain in the 1930s and would be instrumental in popularizing women’s hats before, during and after World War II. In Paris, Caroline Reboux – the ‘Queen of Milliners’ – was busy promoting the hat as an essential accessory for women’s fashion, and her designs were considered alongside those of Charles Frederick Worth, the English designer and father of haute couture…….Charly decided on the look and stuck his label on you.
“You can flirt with a fan in your hand. You can flirt holding a cigarette, too. But a woman can really flirt with a hat.” Lauren Bacall
Coming to London in 1941, John served his apprenticeship with Aage Thaarup cutting his teeth in Grosvenor Square with a mixture of royalty and Hollywood. Conscripted in 1943, after 3 years in the Royal Navy and the D-Day landings, John decided it would be far safer back in the Royal circle and opened his first atellier in a london basement with his war time gratuity and sister Jessie Boyd.
Working with the fashion designer Clive Duncan who, like Aage had royal connections, John received many commissions and his millinery flourished. Designing hats for Duncan’s first London show in 1947, their work attracted a number of buyers from Paris.
“Here everyone was still wearing utility clothing which was plain, plain, plain. The visitors from Paris arrived wearing the new look from Dior and we were flabbergasted! They had beautiful wide brims, waisted dresses and skirts that were so full they touched both sides of the door…it was absolutely fantastic. I had never seen anything like it in my life before.” John Boyd
Although London was the traditional home of couture millinery, America was blazing its own trail. An influx of immigrants, more leisure, more occasions, more department stores (Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman) – the US was well and truly hatted. John P John was taking New York by storm, and the black milliner Mildred Blount had been in Hollywood creating hats for ‘Gone With The Wind’, Joan Crawford and the World’s Fair.
By the 1950’s, prêt-à-porter and a new work force of women loath to give up their freedom, millinery was in decline, but John’s clientele continued to grow, and in the mid 50’s he took a small shop in Brompton Arcade with an atelier at the back the size of a table. Royalty and high society continued to play at Ascot and in gardens, while in the United States, Jack Kennedy had a no hat show for his inauguration speech. Luckily for the milliners, Halston reinvented Garbo’s pillbox and Jackie happily played along. The Hat Corporation of America looked upon JFK’s naked head with dread. They leaned on the President, who eventually relented and agreed to be seen at least carrying one. The decline in the hatting industry had accelerated after 1945 and by 1960 there was no stopping it.
“A woman rushes into Mr John’s New York shop in desperate need of a hat. He built one right on her head, but she flinched when he named the price. Mr John then dismantled the hat and handed it to her. “That’s $3.95,” he said, “You make it.”.” (John P John. American milliner 1902 – 1993).
1967 was a turning point for John when he made a hat for Princess Anne, then 17, launching a tanker in the north of England. It was a boater, a new shape for the royal family who prefered hats without brims. Anne had always thought hats were rather ‘square’. “I can’t see a bloody thing in this wind” she remarked on a tour of Australia. Faced with something approaching an ultimatum, Anne agreed to give hats a try. Her sombrero, lemon bowler and bad guy black stetson broke the mould and she was making fashion headlines worldwide. John’s hats, already a name in Mayfair and Belgravia were now seen across the globe. From oil rig to garden party, he continued to supply Anne with designs just for the right occasion, and a youthful stampede was launched; millinery had not been so busy in years. The Princess Royal becomes a reluctant style icon more comfortable on a horse than under a hat.
When Lady Diana Spencer, the future Princess of Wales came to John on the recommendation of her mother and grandmother, it would be a defining moment for couture millinery. A renaissance. The last few decades had not be kind to hats. More off the peg, and so many cheap pegs all different colours and sizes; hair, wigs, revolution, freedom, sexual and otherwise, there was just no time for the hat.
“Mothers would drag in their daughters with long faces shouting ‘God, you’ll look a scream in that!’, then suddenly they all loved it…hats with feathers, ribbons and veils like the Princess of Wales. Diana was our best ambassador for hats and the entire millinery industry owes her a debt.” John Boyd
“My new range was just being completed when Diana arrived, and sitting on a chair surrounded by ribbons suddenly took a tricorn shape in sparterie that was hanging on the door and said “I like that style, I will have it for my wedding.” John Boyd
The pink tricorn she wore in 1981 was copied worldwide and seen by millions of people. Diana, now the most photographed woman in the world was wearing a hat. And that hat was made by John Boyd. Diana, the Roman goddess, and pink from the genus Dianthus – a combination of the Greek god and flower. Auspicious indeed. Meanwhile, back in the states, the mayor of New York Ed Koch, fresh from the Simon & Garfunkel gig in Central Park called John with a request….. ‘Make my wife a hat; do whatever you like’. Ed had brought New York city from the brink of bankruptcy to economic boom and had a few dollars to spend.
“I was literally too busy and had to decline. And there were hardly any milliners left. There used to be whole streets in Paris for milliners….one just for roses or blue flowers. Can you imagine?” John Boyd
There are of course only so many parties and ship launches even a Princess can go to, and times were still often lean. Enter Pamela in tears. In the good old days (the days of the 6 o’clock hat – cocktail hour), every milliner would have had a matcher; usually a Cockney girl who would be sent around to find material to match a frock. John’s was a little different. Pamela came to John on the rebound from an unfortunate love affair and everyone remarked on how elegant and beautiful she was. Meantime, one of John’s clients asked what she could do with her old frocks – vintage Dior of course. They certainly couldn’t give them to their maids – where would they wear them – and definitely not to their friends. Luckily, John had a spare shop in Walton street and decided to open a second hand boutique for posh frocks. If it’s good enough for high society it’s good enough to be second hand……a kind of royal rag. John opened the shop in 1963 and called it Pamela’s. He took a nice cut and if the frock didn’t sell within six weeks it was given to charity.
At the end of 1985 Pirelli calendar had a re-launch. Norman Parkinson behind the camera and the best of British designers up front – clothes by Zandra Rhodes, Jasper Conran and Bruce Oldfield, shoes by Manolo Blahnik (ok he’s Spanish), and hats of course by John Boyd. Iman did most of the wearing just on the right side of eroticism: black and white breasts, stockings, bottoms and champagne. Hats hadn’t been so sexy since the Parisian bordellos of Edward VII, the first gentleman of Europe and entente cordiale.
“I have the greatest admiration for Christian Dior…. Such elegance and artistry using such simple, simple lines, fantastic.” John Boyd
“Robert Piguet taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come.”
Who taught Piguet? Paul Poiret – French designer and the ‘Picasso of fashion’. While his designs were leading-edge, his construction was not. Poiret died in poverty, his genius forgotten.
In the following decades, surfing on the wave of the Princess of Wales and General Boyd, the door was open for milliners to create fantastic, beautiful designs. With the acceptance of Caroline Reboux as haute couture, Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy finally made it object d’art….liberated from the demand of the client to the desire of the maker.
Hats had found a new aristocracy.
Caroline got us in the door.
John kept us on the dance floor.
Stephen and Philip had a wonderful party for us to go to next.
Rabble rouser…“But surely hats are a luxury?” shouted the communist urchin. He can’t have been more than eight with the most appaling table manners and covered in dust. We didn’t trust him for a moment; up peoples’ chimneys nicking the best silver! Detective Pinkerton tore up their communist manifesto and we all moved to Paris, bought nice hats, and lived happily ever after (‘and lampshades’ shouted Peggy Guggenheim).
One imagines how utilitarian a fireman’s helmet is – essential to the job – as necessary as a debutante in the best hat money can buy. Germane.
At the conclusion of our tête-à-tête I remembered to ask John a question that had been nagging me for many months.
“Where men hats. Why only gear for girls?”
“We begin next week” replied the most wicked man in Beauchamp Place.
So many hats and only one head.
P.S. The photo shoot. They were lawyers, mothers, lovers, directors, sisters, senators, presidents, queens. Within five minutes of seeing John Boyd’s atelier of hats, Constance, Edna, Ida and Alecia threw off hundreds of years of emancipation and all screamed ‘Where’s my hat?’.
John Boyd is still beavering away in Beauchamp Place with his three milliners, Cinderella #1, #2 and #3: Sarah Marshall, Ellie Vallerini, Pia Pertulla. And with Ascot 2014 bringing heads new, young and international things are pretty peachy; there is of course a Princess for back-up just in case.
One can usually find John in the shop on a Thursday and Friday; he’s the unassuming chap in the corner with the Chairman Mao cap. And what’s he doing on the other days? Not making hats?
“He keeps bringing them in all squashed in a bag.” Pia Pertulla (Cinderella #3)
“I have to bloody iron them.” Ellie Vallerini (Cinderella #2)
“Can you both please keep the noise down. There’s work to be done!” Sarah Marshall (Cinderella #1)
On leaving, milliner Marshall did whisper to me the rather indelicate matter of the ‘Plume Boom’ and murderous millinery. London had been the centre of trade in exotic feathers, and by the early part of the 20th century was instrumental in the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds worldwide. Edwardian milliners were masters in the art of excess with not just plumes, but heads, wings and whole stuffed birds adorning a hat. And the industry was huge. North America had 80,000 employed in millinery, with thousands more in London and Paris. A more enlightened century emerged and voices were raised. Queen Alexandra banned rare osprey feathers at court and the Plumage Act of 1921 would ‘prohibit the sale, hire, or exchange of the plumage and skins of certain wild birds’. The cloche and a new hair-cut was of course the birds’ real saviour. The bob and other short styles just couldn’t support such oversized, constraining and extravagant hats. Millinery is far kinder to exotic birds today, and its amazing what one can do with a pair of scissors and some dye.
Calling all daughters of princes, presidents, oligarchs and politburo members. We need your heads.
I’m a communist, pinko, liberal myself, but perhaps we still need a Princess, if for nothing more than to put a hat on her head…..and give out baubles of course!
In June 2014, John Boyd was awarded an MBE for services to the fashion industry in the Queen’s birthday honours list.
So endeth the lesson. Amen
“Frivolous hats are trying to make a comeback as far as they possibly can. And when hats become mad and frivolous, it is usually the start of a dangerous period.” John Boyd