Queen Elizabeth II is also the Queen of Hats
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In an age when few people wear hats on a daily basis, consider this: Queen Elizabeth II, whose rule began on Feb. 6, 1952, has had 5,000 hats protecting her pate during her reign as England's monarch.
Considered substitutes for the royal crown, hats enable Queen Elizabeth to be easily identified in a crowd, shield her from the glare of the sun, add height to her diminutive stature, and supply a bit of flair for her rather lackluster color-coordinated wardrobe. Her Majesty's hats also act as cover-ups, eliminating the need for constant hair-tending for a woman whose existence is an endless round of appointments, appearances and activities.
The queen's fashion sense has often been considered suspect and sometimes downright dowdy. In Elizabeth's defense, her attire was long chosen by her greatly loved but distinctly unfashionable maid, the now-deceased Margaret "Bobo" MacDonald. However, the monarch's taste in hats is nothing short of whimsical. Given her nearly 60 years of sovereignty, Queen Elizabeth's hat selections have been remarkably diverse.
These royal bonnets are highly prized. As rich as the horse-breeding, dog-loving, tea-brewing monarch is, she isn't a snob about her treasured hats, wearing some favorites 20 to 30 times. Occasionally, the queen chooses to wear a chapeau only once, such as the one worn for the millennium celebration.
Aside from events in her kingdom and important family occasions, hats are often designed for the queen to be worn on royal tours of foreign lands. These creations may incorporate cultural features of the locale, while always respecting that country's customs.
Regardless of where or when her hats are worn, there are no knock-offs for HRH. Since assuming the throne, Queen Elizabeth has kept her milliners quite dizzy designing the constructions that complete her outfits daily. A replica of her head is even said to grace certain hat-making establishments. With so many hats one has to wonder where they are all housed. Alas, a member of the queen's staff at Buckingham Palace recently informed this writer by phone that it was not possible to divulge any information concerning the storage of the queen's wardrobe.
Early in her reign the queen's principal milliner was Simone Mirman, at the time a hat supplier for couturiers Norman Hartnell, Christian Dior and Hardy Amis. So impressed with Ms. Mirman's skills were the queen and the queen mother that Ms. Mirman was granted the royal warrants of both. Her most unforgettable commission was the Tudor-inspired headdress the queen wore for the investiture of her son, Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1969. Other early hat makers to the queen included London College of Fashion's Madame Marie O'Regan and the Danish Aage Thaarup.
A Pennsylvanian has even contributed to the queen's hat closets. Sally Victor (nee Josephs), a native of Scranton and a Coty award-winning designer, looked to history and architecture for inspiration and adhered to sophisticated, clean lines. By 1959, Ms. Victor owned the largest millinery company in America and provided her most prestigious clients with the originals of the copies worn by American housewives. Her often brimless, flower-trimmed designs and sculpted turbans were mainstays of the busy young British royal mother of the 1960s.
Beginning in the late '60s, Frederick Fox designed many of the slightly more daring and dramatic hats that Queen Elizabeth continued to favor for several decades.
Since the mid-1990s London-based Philip Somerville has held the distinction of Royal Milliner. Mr. Somerville is a perfectionist with high standards, using only the best of materials when creating his bold but simple styles. Unusual fabrics and trimming are often utilized for his off-the-face hats that brim with vibrant color or make the most of stark tonal contrasts. Black, often with artful touches of white, is employed for funerals. The native New Zealander is also credited with "safety proofing" his hats, so they are prevented from blowing off in windy conditions.
It's the latest technology in the long history of headgear. As it happens, you don't have to sit on a throne to stand out in a hat, because chapeaus lend distinction to all who wear them. Hats have covered men's heads since ancient times, but members of the fairer sex wore only simple veils, kerchiefs, hoods, wimples and the like, because they were expected to cover their heads. It wasn't until the latter years of the 16th century that women were seen in structured headwear, but once ladies got a taste of the fabulous finery, they were off to the races -- Royal Ascot and the Kentucky Derby in particular.
For the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 2003, a retrospective of Her Majesty's fashion accessories, "Hats and Handbags: Accessories From the Royal Wardrobe," was exhibited at Kensington Palace. The items displayed were chosen by the queen and her senior couturiers, and provided a unique glimpse of the fashion trademarks of her long reign. Emphasizing the hat as a work of art, the exhibition showcased 100 examples of headwear including several pieces from the queen's childhood and days as a young princess -- pillboxes, feathered and flowered confections, turbans, sculpted straws, and a number of out of the ordinary choices.
The final days of April will be quite a busy time for the Royal Family this year, what with the Queen's 85th birthday on April 21, Easter falling later than usual, and a much-heralded family wedding. Several months ago, the Irish milliner Philip Treacy (a favorite of Queen Elizabeth's daughter-in-law, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall) was given the heady responsibility of designing the royal toppers to be worn at the upcoming nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29. Although, assuredly, no one will attempt to upstage the blushing bride on that day, you can be certain that the groom's Grandma, God save her, will be sporting a memorable crowning glory just the same.
First Published April 5, 2011 12:00 am