President Kennedy is known for many things, but in the eyes of Sophie Cooke - Sheffield’s first city centre milliner for over 30 years - he was simply ‘the man who killed the hat industry.’
“He was the first president not to wear a hat during his inauguration, and before him you couldn’t leave the house without a hat,” she said. “But JFK blew that whole idea out of the water.”
If the young, dashing, modern president of the USA could go without a hat, so could everyone else. And as women developed 60s beehives and (shock) completely undone hairstyles, their hats disappeared too, along with millions of male trilbies, pork pies and fedoras.
Sophie has researched the Sheffield hat industry by visiting Yorkshire museums and archives.
“In the nineteenth century there were pages of Sheffield milliners in the trade directories,” she said. “And in Leeds Museum I found a gorgeous straw bonnet made by Miss Watson in the 1800s, who worked at 6 Duke Street, Sheffield Park. So there is clearly a history of hats in Sheffield, but linked to when people wore them up to the 1960s.”
The last dedicated city centre milliner she could find advertised was Madame Marie who worked through the wartime blackouts, said Sophie, until finally closing her doors on Division Street in 1983. Until now: Sophie makes headwear from her base in the Exchange Place studios near Victoria Quays, and recently joined fellow milliners Amanda Moon and Siobhan Nicholson for their second outing in the Winter Garden as The Hat Stand pop-up shop.
“Before the sixties, if you didn’t wear a hat you were clearly the wrong sort,” said Amanda. “And undone hair in the nineteenth century was a sign of destitution. But when hairstyles changed from the 1960s, young people would think, if grandma always wears a hat, I don’t want to do that.”
Siobhan added: “As fashion became more relaxed, I think people felt slightly liberated at not having to wear a hat. But now people wear hats because they want to, and I think that more people enjoy getting dressed up for special occasions.”
The approaching wedding and horse racing seasons all help keep milliners in business, and Sophie is a keen monitor of the ‘brilliant’ Royal Hats blog, she said, to keep ahead of likely fashion changes led by the likes of the Duchess of Cambridge and Empress Michiko of Japan.
Amanda’s friend, Tomoyo Wharam, is from Japan but is not as confident in her hat wearing as the empress.
“I like to wear a hat, but I’m quite shy, so I’m not really sure which is the hat to suit me,” she said.
“A lot of women enjoy the idea of wearing a hat, but don’t want to feel exposed as the majority of people don’t,” said Amanda. “But we’d say you should feel comfortable, you should fee free to wear a hat,” she added.
Towards the end of their stay in the Winter Garden, the milliners supported the #hattastic campaign to raise money for the Brain Tumour Research charity. Sophie’s longtime schoolfriend, Kerry Norton, was killed by a brain tumour seven years ago.
Over 60 visitors donned a variety of top hats, berets, stetsons and more and had their photographs tagged online to raise over £175 from their Winter Garden hat hashtagging.
“It’s an important charity for me, as well as being a milliner who always supports hat wearing,” said Sophie.
The Hat Standers came from various backgrounds: Amanda was a teacher and Sophie a police intelligence officer before switching to millinery, whereas Siobhan made royal hats for milliner Philip Somerville featured in Sophie’s favourite blog, before moving to Sheffield.
All agree that hats are back, whether it’s men in beanies and pork pies or women in perchers, berets or fascinators.
“I’m sure we will see more people wearing hats in Sheffield. People definitely want more choice than the High Street has to offer and they appreciate the skill and craft of our work,” said Siobhan, adding that there are more people taking up the trade so the city is likely to see more milliners too.
“Hats are no longer outlandish,” said Amanda.
“And they keep your ears warm,” said Sophie.