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Three hatted young women at restaurant table with a tablecloth and a vase of flowers, one removing hat
Lunching ladies in hats, Charles Dana Gibson, ca 1898.

Millinery as a Top Industry for Women

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When writing my Dry Goods Economist posts, I ran across advertisements and stories about hats and wanted to include millinery in the series, but couldn’t make it work. This post is my opportunity to give the trade more attention, not because hats were a product women bought, but because millinery was a trade where women were visibly involved.

an article in the Millinery column about motor hats with three images of women - one woman has a large hat with long feathers, one woman has a soft full tall hat with fluffy feathers, one woman has a soft tal hat close to the head with a giant bow at the neck
“Fashionable Motor Hats.” Dry Goods Economist, November, 6, 1909.

Hats, or gear for the head, have been something we humans have plopped on our heads for thousands of years. Historically, they may have been purely practical or denoted status, but over time, they became much more commonly used as decoration. The word milliner (though it has historically had a number of other spellings) derives from the name of the city of Milan, a place known for quality hats in the 18th century. Today, milliner and hatter are sometimes used interchangeably but, traditionally, milliners worked primarily with women and frequently were women, while hatters were usually men and seemed to mostly work on felt hats. Eventually that line blurred when many women started wearing felt hats, and today, many milliners do work with felt hats.

There were many women in the trade, but I want to mention two of them. The first is Betsey Metcalfe who, the story goes, was twelve when she saw an imported straw hat and decided to make a copy. She has since been credited with introducing straw-hat making in America. The second is Lilly Daché.

head and shoulders image of Lilly Dache wearing a three tiered necklace two parts have darker beads the middle one is light beads and large earrings
Lilly Daché, 1959. From the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

Lilly Daché was born in France in 1898, according to the 1930 Census (other sources have other years), and learned hat-making basics from her aunt. She showed such promise that, to hone her skills, she went to Paris to work for some of the best milliners, like Caroline Reboux. She immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1920s and eventually made her way to New York City, where she worked for a small shop. She was able to buy the shop in partnership with a coworker, and ultimately, she owned the entire business. A New York Times article from April 24, 1929 reported that Daché was in the process of moving and consolidating operations that had been located at 19 W 57th St. and 2272 Broadway to the 4th floor of the Columbia Broadcasting System Building at 485 Madison Avenue. Daché continued to have so much success selling through many of the high-end department stores, that, in 1937, she moved her entire millinery business to her own much larger building at 78-80 East 56th St. Many famous women including Hollywood actresses Audrey Hepburn, Carole Lombard, and Marlene Dietrich, wore her creations. She became so successful, that she became a household name. As fashion changed, women stopped wearing hats as much, and consequently, her business declined. She had also established cosmetics businesses that were less successful than her hats, but in the late 1960s she closed all of her businesses and retired to France with her husband. Daché died in Louveciennes, France, on the last day of 1989.

this is from article that features several illustrations of several purses and bags as well as illustrations of various women wearing hats and two women drawn full length wearing hats and carrying umbrellas
“The Deft Art of the Milliner” New York Tribune, January 16, 1921.

If you are interested in researching the industry, sources like Dry Goods Economist would be helpful as would more general fashion and clothing trade publications. There are also trade publications for the industry like The Illustrated Milliner: the American Authority on Millinery and the Delineator as well as publications for the workers in the industry. You may want to use newspapers like those in Chronicling America* if you are looking for advertisements for hats and individual millinery establishments. Beyond that, I found other titles that may be of interest, including Report on the Wages of Women in the Millinery Industry in Massachusetts from 1919 and a 1916 dissertation, The Millinery Trade in Boston and Philadelphia, a Study of Women in Industry. Lastly, the Labor Bulletin is also a good source because the agency published information on wages and hours of trades as well as other labor related issues. Here are a few that I identified:

  • Industrial Experience of Trade-School Girls in Massachusetts, No. 215 (1917)
  • Hours, Earnings, and Conditions of Labor of Women in Indiana Mercantile Establishments and Garment Factories, No. 160 (1914)
  • Occupational Wage Survey: New York, New York, No. 1101 (1952)
  • Earnings and Hours in the Hat Industries, No. 671 (1939)

Given the nature of the millinery industry, looking at unions would also be helpful–a book by Charles Green, The Headwear Workers, a Century of Trade Unionism, which presents some interesting data and perspective, along with some of the history, may be a good start. You may also want to research individual unions like the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers International Union, the United Hatters of North America (UHNA), and the Cloth Hat, Cap and Millinery Workers International Union (CHCMW).

newspaper page with an article aboutmillinery trends of the year and twelve advertisements for business in the Wilmington, Delaware many on King Street including The Leader, New York Millinery House, Mrs. H. L. BLEST, Holt's, Pauline G. Bartown, L. L. Warren, Martin & Everett, C. Quimbey, A & L Jenny, M. E. Bratton, Grady's, Mrs. Alice Hays.
Millinery advertisements. Evening Journal, March 20, 1907.

If you are interested in specific businesses, there are books about specific towns like Bloomington. You may find some of the resources in our Doing Historical Company Research helpful if you have specific business names.

While hats, other than those that are sports-related, are not as common as they once were, millinery and hat making is still very much around. In the U.S., hats can be seen on some Sundays and Easter as well as at horse racing events like the Kentucky Derby, while in the U.K. they are still in fashion for weddings and Royal Ascot. There are still a number of milliners and guilds including the Milliners Guild (U.S.) and the British Hat Guild. If you want to look at images of hats through time, the Library’s web page has many images of hats as well as some advertisements–just search for hat or milliner and limit your search to photographs, prints, and drawings.

Photograph shows an enormous crowd, spanning the length of the boardwalk, posing and dressed in their Easter best very few of them are not wearing hats with the water on the left side and a multistoried building and storefronts on the right.
Easter parade on the boardwalk, Atlantic City, N.J., ca1905.

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*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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