Rise of the Milliner in England: A History of Mad Hatters, by Sharon Lathan

Rise of the Milliner in England: A History of Mad Hatters, by Sharon Lathan

In case you haven’t heard, I have branched out in my passion for all things Regency into the field of millinery. I’ll share more information and links on that venture at the end of this blog post. Interestingly, as extensively as I have researched aspects of the period in order to write my novels as historically accurate as possible, I hadn’t dug too deeply into the realm of hat making. As long as I didn’t plop a pillbox hat atop Elizabeth’s head or write Darcy donning a cowboy ten-gallon, I was okay! LOL! Alas, that basic knowledge could not suffice if I was going to make hats and bonnets that were period appropriate. So today I thought I would share a bit of history about the artistic profession of millinery.



14th century headwear

The origins of wearing a head covering trace far into the past, the primary purpose as a protection from harsh weather and external elements. As civilizations became distinct and cultured, specific styles of headwear formed, most significantly as a visible sign of one’s rank and social standing. After all, in many instances a person’s head had the unique advantage of rising above the crowd. Additionally, a headdress served as a frame and/or topper to an important person’s face, where the focus of attention would be directed. Examples include the elaborate headdresses of Egyptian Pharaohs, the ornate wreaths crowning winners of the Olympic Games, the bejeweled crowns of European royalty, and the miters (mitres) and wraps of religious orders.

Throughout the ages, both men and women of all classes wore various forms of head coverings. Headscarves, veils, wraps, hats, and more can be seen in nearly every culture since the dawn of mankind. Largely the reason behind placing something atop the head was of a practical purpose, as noted above, or as a mark of modesty, marital status, social rank, and so on. While aesthetics and fashion often played a role, practicality and usefulness tended to be the driving force behind headwear design.

Women’s Headwear 15th and 16th Century

According to most sources, it was not until the 14th to 15th centuries that hats (using the term broadly) emerged in western cultures as a standard. It is essential to note that for well into the 17th century, headdresses for women were almost always a variation of a hood or cap designed to shroud the head and cover the hair. For most women, whether married, unmarried, or widowed, the modesty and decorum decreed by the church demanded simplistic styles with minimal adornments. This strict rule did not apply to women of society and aristocracy, of course, although the mandate to cover the hair (or most of it) still applied and ostentatious embellishments were frowned upon.

The three images I’ve tacked into this section show the simplistic fashion for female headwear. Each can be clicked to view in a larger size. If curious to see more, I suggest a Google or Pinterest search for period portraits. Also, a great blog with images (such as the one below) can be read here: A Glance at Female Headwear

16th century headscarves in drawings and portraits


Men, on the other hand, more often wore grand hats of the finest materials with an array of gaudy trimmings, especially huge feathers. Think of the macaroni or dandy.

The switch in headwear design for the sexes was a gradual evolution owed largely to the artists from which the name now exclusively applied to a hat maker derives: MILLINER.



New knowledge to me was that the word “milliner” did not exist before the middle of the 16th century. Surprise! Hats were around, obviously, so where did the specific term derive?

At that time, the Duchy of Milan in Italy was the established destination to acquire luxury haberdashery fabrics, lace, ribbon, straw, and armor and swords. These quality “milanese” imports were highly prized by shopkeepers in England but not cheap to acquire and scattered amongst a handful of merchants throughout the city.

From bad came some good, in this case the Great Fire of London in 1655. In the rebuilding aftermath, new shopping districts emerged with shopkeepers selling multiple goods and services to offer their customers expanded choices conveniently in one place. The first “shopping malls” were born, such as the famed Pantheon Bazaar and Messrs Harding, Howell & Co. Merchants who specialized in selling the expensive materials and clothing items from Milan were referred to as “milianers” or “millianers”. The double-L derivation may have derived from a connection to the Latin mille (thousand) due to these department store forerunners selling massive quantities of products.

As the desire for fashionable hats for women grew in the following century, the need for quality supplies also grew. Specifically, the fine felt, silk fabrics, and woven straw hats from Milan were the most sought after. The increasing demand for lavish hats for rich society women led many of these “millianer” shop owners to narrowly focus the creative talents of their modistes/mantua makers and seamstresses. By the late 18th century, ladies hats were as important as any other article of clothing, if not more so, and a dedicated feminine hat maker (who could be a man or a woman) was solidly established as a singular profession with the title “milliner” firmly bestowed. However, that does not mean a millinery shop ONLY made hats (some continued to design and sew gowns, coats, undergarments, etc.) or sold no other merchandise. As the two advertisements from 1757 below show, the list of items sold by a milliner were extensive. 


As a last bit of fun on this section, the 1787 drawing below is by “SF Fores” and was published by Henry Kingbury. Clearly hats are the biggest draw (pun intended) in this shop but we see bustles, muffs, ribbons and lace too. This undoubtedly exaggerated drawing is still a terrific example of the massive, wildly decorated hats worn by the women in contrast to the plain hat worn by the man (King George III).

A little more searching on this drawing led me to Mike Rendell, The Georgian Gentlemen, who supplies a portion of the teeny text underneath AND the origin of the caricature. I shall direct you to his fabulous blog via this link:  His Royal Miserliness – A Milliner’s Shop

A quote given in the comments is from the British Museum website regarding this drawing. Here it is, in part:

“A long counter extends across the greater part of the design. The Queen is seated buying tape, which she holds appraisingly, looking with a satisfied smile to one of the Princesses . . . one turning her head to look at a device for extending a skirt which she is trying on. The back wall is lined with boxes, &c. Above these are hung specimens of the fashionable petticoat inflators, a hat, &c. In the foreground a little girl holds an enormous muff; a dog, partly shaved in the French manner, barks at a cat which stands on a band-box with its back arched. In the back parlour of the shop (left) two women sit at a table sewing; a man sits between them threading a needle.”

These three images can be clicked to view larger.

Wasn’t that fascinating? And I barely scratched the surface! Below are three of many references. Google searching yields a ton of information on the history of headwear and millinery. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

The Millinery Shop at Colonial Williamsburg
History of Hats For Women
History of Millinery

As for me and my latest artistic business venture, as many of the Austen Authors readers already know from my blog last month – Report on the Jane Austen Festival and the debut of A Lady Bonnet Boutique – I have become a milliner. My shops (Etsy and my online website/marketplace) can be accessed via the images below. The photo to the right is the bonnet and reticule set I made especially for the Austen Authors Autumn Quarter Giveaway. You could be the lucky winner! Be sure to pop over to the giveaway page for a chance at my gorgeous creation, a $20 gift card toward any item listed on A Lady Bonnet Boutique, or the other amazing prizes.




11 Responses to Rise of the Milliner in England: A History of Mad Hatters, by Sharon Lathan

  1. Sharon, I just checked out your itsy page and love your new creations. I’m thinking you should write a short story about Hats! Yes??

  2. Interesting. We used to wear hats to church on Sundays and then it became those lacey mantillas. So glad we are over that. I don’t particularly like to wear hats but will use a sun visor if I am sitting at a game or going for a walk.

  3. I love these hats. You are so creative. I loved the links and the articles regarding headgear. I got completely lost in the history of hats. When I was a kid, men and women wore hats. Now they don’t. I wish we did because I love hats. Congratulations on your new business… I wish you much success.

    • You are most welcome, my dear! I must thank YOU for such a great blog. The images compiled together saved me a ton of searching! I wanted to share all of your images but figured it would be better for people to go to the source itself. I hope it works!

  4. We had a very interesting JASNA-Vancouver meeting once about the opening up and resulting prosperity of the Pacific Northwest due to the need to hunt the beaver for its pelts to make the top hats such as Darcy would have worn. (Beaver was later succeeded by silk as the main material – plus the poor old beaver was a bit thin on the ground due to over hunting). One of the key players in the beaver pelt/fur trade who made millions by anybody’s standards was John Astor (still has a delightful coastal town named after him in Northern Oregon “Astoria”. In the end he decided real estate held more prospects than the fur trade and settled in Manhatten. I always find it interesting to look at men’s fashions in tandem with ladies’ fashions – what drove the style (tax on wig powder, Beau Brummel, beaver pelt availability) – all very fascinating. Thanks for your informative post.

    • Thanks for the extra info, Joan. I remember reading a long while back about the issues with the fur trade with America. I was researching something else, but thought the connection with the US fascinating. Perhaps in time I shall look more into men’s hats as well as where the fabrics and adornments originated from. We take easy access to material from far and wide for granted, I think, forgetting that not so very long ago it was a challenge to get one’s hands on “exotic” materials. It definitely affects how I look at the artistry of fashion (to name just one area) when you realize this. Plus, as I am learning, sewing a hat isn’t easy! Sure, some of it I can do with the sewing machine and hot glue gun, but the bulk of it must be done by hand. Even taking into account that seamstresses of yore were vastly more skilled than me, it still boggles my mind to imagine them doing EVERYTHING by hand!

  5. It is with reading R & P that I encounter the word milliner. Then there was the ribbons etc to alter their bonnets. This is enlightening like the other post about bonnets. Thank you for sharing.

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