How did you become interested in millinery?
I’ve always had a love of accessories. When I was very little I would often be seen with a handbag and my favourite yellow umbrella, so hats seemed a natural progression as I got older.
Please describe the first hat you made.
My first hat was a black peachbloom felt with a small downturned brim and quite a high straight crown. It was trimmed with a black organdie drape and oversize paper roses in pink and red. Think Undertaker, but prettier! I remember my millinery teacher being quite horrified at the thought of it, but admitted, once it was made, that somehow it worked. I wore it to death and then pulled the roses off to re-use.
Where and how did you learn millinery?
I had planned to do a millinery course in Melbourne when I was about 19, but never managed to get the money together, so finally, when I was about 28 and working in London (backstage as a theatre mechanist), I enrolled in night classes at the London College of Fashion.
I had started to go a bit mad, working in such a creative industry and not doing anything more creative than putting sets up and moving scenery about in the dark, so the night classes were really just to see where I might want to go when I decided I’d had enough of working backstage.
From my first class I was hooked. I took classes over the next 18 months, all the while working backstage.
Where have you worked?
My first millinery job was in the Hat & Jewellery Dept of Covent Garden. We made all the hats, headdresses and jewellery for both The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet Companies. It was an amazing enviroment; a department with 4 full-time milliners who were extraordinarily talented and generous with their knowledge.
In many ways it was like being hot housed – we made an amazing array of hats, tiaras and accessories, and in many ways it set me up to work anywhere in the world.
When I moved back home after 11 years in London, I found an ad in the Saturday paper for a milliner. It was for Phillip Rhodes, and I worked for him for a season, making his ready to wear collection and trimming the odd model hat for his racing clients. Although I trained as a fashion milliner, it’s the one time I’ve worked in fashion.
I am now Head of Millinery for The Australian Ballet, and we make all the hats, headdresses and jewellery, as well as wings, and occasionally things like masks and costume props.
Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
Being a maker for the Ballet, I rarely design. Each new show has a designer that I work very closely with, and my input varies enormously depending on how that designer likes to work and how they feel about headwear.
My job is to make their vision come to life and that is incredibly satisfying. While some designers may have sewing experience, very few have any millinery experience and that puts me in an amazing position. To have a designer’s face light up and say that what I have made them is exactly what they wanted is very exciting. Equally, it can go the other way!
What materials and techniques do you favour?
One of the things I love about my job is the variety. I can be working on a hat made of thermoplastic one day and a headdress made with millinery wire and lace the next. What I love to work with most, however, is felt. There is something about the soft, sculptural quality that I love, although these days I rarely make a felt hat that isn’t a tricorn.
What has been your most enjoyable commission?
Over the years I’ve made so many shows that have been exciting and challenging, but the commission I loved the most was for my mother-in-law’s youngest sister who has Downs syndrome. She was marrying her best friend who also had Downs, and it was such a fantastic thing for both of them. They were so happy and proud, and adored each other. It was very simple, a headband with fabric daisies and a short veil, but it’s still the headdress that I’m most proud of making.
How would you describe your style of hats?
It’s hard to know, so much of what I do is designed by other people. But I guess my style would be quite strong and bold, probably quite architectural.
Who do you make hats for?
Almost exclusively ballet dancers, occasionally opera singers and very occasionally a bride (the non bridezilla variety only).
Who would you love to make a hat for?
The idea of making a hat for a celebrity doesn’t really grab me; what I find exciting is the idea of collaboration. If I was going to do fashion I’d love to do a bride with Akira or a runway show for Vivienne Westwood, something that was a complete fantasy and not at all constrained by convention. I’d also quite like to do a winter collection with someone like Martin Grant. That way everything could be made out of felt. Failing that I’ve always wanted to work on the Myer Christmas windows and on a Moomba float (which may have more chance of becoming a reality).
Which other milliners or artists in general do you admire?
I’m a fan of Philip Treacy. I think he not only pushes the boundaries of headwear in a way that is quite theatrical, but he also made women think about what they put on their heads differently. There is something so flattering to women about his hats (recent royal wedding hoopla aside).
The photographs of Diane Arbus are a favourite for their bizarre staged theatricality, as are Pedrop Almodovar’s films for the same reason. I love Julia DeVille’s jewellery and taxidermy, Sam Scmidt’s incredibly detailed landscape photos, and I have a real thing for modernist architecture. I could go on, the list is very long!
Do you wear your own hats? Or hats in general?
I do, although I have very few and most of Melbourne has seen them now, so it may be time to run up a couple more. My favourite at the moment is a fake fur hunting cap with ear flaps, which I bought in the David Jones Men’s Department.
Do you teach millinery?
Not formally, but I take on tertiary level work experience students who are studying costume design and want to specialise in millinery. It’s something I think about more often as I’m getting older, so who knows?
Do you have any other interests, hobbies?
I’ve always loved a craft project, but having a 4-year-old I have discovered that making kids costumes is brilliant fun, and I read voraciously and listen to a lot of music. I’ve recently started cycling a lot, so instead of just staying up watching the Tour de France I now actually get on a bike. And I’m a bit of a Liverpool Football Club fan after all those years in London, surrounded by a nation of mad football fans. It was a case of get interested or not have a conversation for 6 months of the year!