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Spending a Sunday afternoon at a tea party with women’s hats and their history

By Marilyn Busch

The lace trimmed pink table cloths, floral centerpieces and teacakes set out at Greenville Public Library one bright March afternoon were straight out of an English garden party. And yes, while the setting was surely not as glamourous as let’s say, a country estate, the 30 ladies (and one gentleman) assembled were gathered because of their shared love of the popular Downton Abbey television show. While some may be a fan of the show’s novel plot lines and romantic entanglements, there are a great number of us who watch it for two other reasons – Maggie Smith’s incomparable performance as the Dowager Countess and of course, for the gorgeous hats.

The staff of the Greenville Public Library was well aware of that shared love as they kicked off their afternoon tea and talk from local milliner and educator Elsie Collins. Amid a display of her extensive vintage hat collection, a costume slideshow from the incredibly popular PBS show played in the corner as Collins entertained the group with her personal history as a milliner and how Rhode Island figured prominently in the history of American millinery.

Award winning apparel/costume designer, milliner, and teacher, Collins is no stranger to the creation of one-of-a-kind fashions and accessories. With over 40 years spent as a dressmaker and over 20 years costuming for the theater her love of sewing started early under the tutelage of her dressmaker mother. She says, “I have been sewing since the age of 10, at my mother’s side.” After studying apparel design and pattern drafting at RISD, she went on to apprentice with an Italian tailor to broaden her education.

Collins discovered her passion for millinery in 1998, while costuming “The Heiress” for director Bob Colona at The Shakespearean Theater in Maine. The production, set in 1860, required specific period costumes and many hats – hats which they did not own and therefore had to be made.

As she describes it, Collins had an epiphany that summer, she found herself working alone in the middle of the night “bleary-eyed exhausted, listening to the loons on the lake in this poorly lit little cabin hand sewing hats.” It was at this moment that she realized “I’m in heaven…I could do this for three more lifetimes.”

Collins love for the art of millinery and design is evident in the way that she talks about her craft and her techniques. Colonna, now Artistic Director of The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater recalls her “meticulous re-creation of authentic pieces, with a brilliant eye for detail,” describing her designs as “wonderful creative flights.”

Realizing she didn’t have the necessary skills to call her self a full-fledged milliner yet, she set out to learn the most important technique in millinery – blocking. She scoured online videos and other sources to teach herself the technique of steaming fabric and straw on a wooden hat block by hand.

Interestingly enough, the beginnings of hat making in America can also be labelled as self-taught – and traced back to Rhode Island. Betsey Metcalf of Providence, who copied the design of an imported bonnet from a store window, created the first documented straw bonnet in America. She generously shared her technique with anyone who wished to learn in RI and Massachusetts, eventually launching an entire industry. By 1853, nearby Foxboro, Mass. was famously known as the “Straw Hat Capital of the World”.

But as Collins explains, Rhode Island was never far behind in the creation of fashionable hats, with an average of 50-60 milliners working in the state from the 19th century right up until the 1950s.

In the 1930’s depression era, women with limited funds tended to buy new hats instead of new clothes. In the 1940s when dress fabric was hard to come by because of World War II rationing, the demand for hats continued as a way to add some glamour to a woman’s wardrobe. Not unlike today’s “red carpet” obsession, for decades the new style of hat worn in public could make national (and international) headlines.

While milliners worked close together in many buildings throughout downtown Providence, larger shops and companies were created, among them the Providence Hat Manufacturing Company and Clar-Mar Millinery. In fact, Clar-Mar was the longest surviving millinery shop, surviving changing fashions and styles right up until 1990.

Attendee Judith Gendron of North Smithfield was employed for years at one such hat company, where she jokingly admits that she “both worked and spent her paycheck there at the end of every week.” Many of the women in the audience for Collins’ talk spoke about how for decades a woman would not even think about stepping foot outside of her home without a hat – and matching purse and gloves. Generations of women across the nation wore their “Sunday best” in observance of the Church’s decree that women must cover their heads

during services.

The 1960s would see the steep decline in the need for bespoke hats from American milliners. Collins attributes this to two significant cultural changes: the Catholic Church finally allowing women to attend mass without covering their heads, and the bouffant hairstyle. Bouffants, made popular by then First Lady Jackie Kennedy, put the focus firmly on the height and styling of the hair – something that Collins points out a hat would surely ruin. The emergence of 60s counterculture and women’s liberation soon made hats for the most part obsolete or “old fashioned.”

Today’s 21st century culture has adopted a more utilitarian take on hats – useful only to keep out the sun and the winter cold. Glamorous hats have been mostly reduced to “special occasion wear,” worn for the events like the Kentucky Derby or weddings. “A hat will most definitely get you noticed,” observes Collins with a laugh, “which may be why some people don’t like wearing them.”

But Collins is determined to keep the art and appreciation of millinery alive, selling hand-blocked hats on her Etsy store, Thistle Cottage Studio (www.orsinimedici1951/shops/etsy.com). “I began Thistle Cottage Studio eight years ago on Etsy,” she explains “and have been delighted with it ever since.” Beyond being a creative outlet her Etsy store showcases her work for a worldwide audience, having sold to 15 countries around the globe.

Eager to pass along her vast knowledge and millinery techniques to students of all ages, Collins offers a wide range of millinery courses at her Pawtucket studio, offering classes in beginner skills such as blocking, cut and sewn hats, pattern drafting and more. For more information on her courses and workshops, call (401) 475-3748. Collins is also an artist in residence at the historic Slater Mill, in Pawtucket, and will be teaching as part of their TradArtsStudio program.

Chatting with the group after her talk, Collins says with a smile that the word “romantic” best describes what she creates, adding “nothing pleases the eye more than a well made romantic hat.”