“A PERSON carries off the hat. Hats are about emotion. It is all about how it makes you feel.” So said world-renowned Irish hat designer Philip Treacy whose creations have adorned the heads of many international celebrities and aristocrats, including members of the British royal family.
And here I am hoping to channel his award-winning flair at a mini masterclass for beginners held at Hotel Stripes Kuala Lumpur recently, conducted by another expert in millinery.
My eyes widen at the sight of a large table covered with dark fabric and festooned with a vibrant and eclectic spread.
Strewn across the length of the table is a myriad of pretty objects ranging from plastic flowers to dyed feathers and pieces of lace — all in a range of hues that would make a parrot jealous. Meanwhile, all eyes are fixed on an elegant bespectacled lady holding court in the centre as she begins explaining the appeal of hats, particularly on visitors during the famous Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival period.
Smiling broadly, she begins: “Probably the best thing about wearing a hat is that it creates an opportunity to start a conversation. So if you start with ‘lovely hat’ and end up talking about something else, then the hat’s done its job. I’ve had people marry as a result of a comment about the hat, something I’m really proud of!”
Serena Lindeman is a household name in Melbourne when it comes to fashionable headwear creations, a must-have item for race-goers attending one of the city’s premier horse races, the Melbourne Cup. Continuing in her gentle Australian cadence, she shares: “One of the things that sets racing fashion apart from everyday fashion is that women generally wear something on their heads and racing fashion is an opportunity for women to put on their finest and to finish off with a hat.”
In the first year of starting her business, Lindeman won a millinery award, thanks to a race day fashionista who was wearing one of her hats. Years later, when a competition was introduced for professional milliners, the former art teacher took home the coveted Myer Fashions on the Field Millinery Award at the inaugural event, her proudest achievement so far.
SHOW AND TELL
Lindeman’s visit to Kuala Lumpur is part of several efforts to highlight the state of Victoria as a holiday destination, with the focus being on its capital, Melbourne.
Springtime is around the corner; a time of year that signals the arrival of glamour and high-fashion fanfare, courtesy of the country’s largest fashion event, the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival, which launches into action from March 1-18.
But for various reasons, Malaysians generally don’t have an affinity with hats in the same way as Melburnians do. Before the mini masterclass, I could not have imagined myself wearing one for any occasion, although trying one in a shop while posing like Audrey Hepburn or Kate Middleton is always the requisite!
With clarity, composure and congeniality, Lindeman continues the masterclass by doing a “show-and-tell”, explaining different items from the table, beginning with some palm-sized synthetic discs to which are attached small combs at the back.
“The comb goes into your hair. Bring the comb forward and that anchors it in your hair.”
Ohhh, I respond silently.
“This stuff is called crin or crinoline — it’s a monofilament. It has a beautiful springy kind of quality.”
“Also popular is the veiling because it gives a sense of allure and some cover for your eyes.”
“These are turkey feathers. You’ll be pleased to know the turkey was going somewhere else and the feathers stayed behind!” jokes Lindeman as she proceeds to trim the sides of a purple feather, creating a beautiful arrow head design.
The demonstration is just a fraction of what millinery entails but it’s enough to send my mind into decision-making overdrive, feeling a bit like a contestant on the fashion-based TV show, Project Runway. But I can depend on Lindeman’s guidance to make things go smoothly; after all, she has 16 years’ worth of experience in teaching millinery under her belt.
She first dabbled in hat-making as a hobby while living in London in the 1990s.
Recalls Lindeman: “I was teaching art but wanted to do something creative for myself so I found some courses at the London College of Fashion, a highly esteemed place to go.” She remembers thinking to herself that if she could make one hat and sell it, then she could go on to make two hats and the income would go up each time. “That’s pretty much what I did — always keeping one toe in a safer, more regular income.”
After graduating, Lindeman found employment with respected London milliner, Edwina Ibbotson, before returning to Melbourne several years later.
The newly-minted milliner opened her own business in 1998 and has been working at her Nicholas Building studio ever since, specialising in custom-made headwear ranging from casual styles for men and women, to fancier designs for racing events.
Her lifestyle today differs markedly from her bucolic childhood on a 2000-acre (809 hectare) farm outside of Melbourne where her parents grew wheat and reared farm animals. The eldest of three siblings reminisces about the time she was around 8.
Smiling, Lindeman shares: “I remember my younger sister and I used to wear little white hats and white dresses, maybe even gloves, dressed by our mother for church. So that was the special day to wear hats. It was traditional in those days.”
Little did young Lindeman know back then that she’d be learning the skills once practised by her grandmother. Her eyes light up as she recalls where her artistic genes likely came from.
“My grandmother had made hats before I was born. Many women made their own hats at that time. So often when I meet people, they tell me that their aunty/grandma was a milliner.”
She remembers seeing indications of her grandmother’s hobby, like an old wooden hat block and suitcases for hats, and knew that she took on other crafts such as weaving, spinning wool and painting china.
Continuing, Lindeman shares: “She had travelled to Europe at the age of 18, which must have been after the First World War because she was born at the turn of the century. If you think about it, young women didn’t do such things back then. She was a spirited woman!”
Lindeman herself had also travelled halfway across the world to Europe in the 1990s before going on to pursue her creative ambitions, suggesting that she has much in common with her beloved grandmother.
“Pieu! Pieu! Pieu!” Mock gun shooting sounds emit suddenly from our masterclass instructor who is holding a glue gun in a Charlie’s Angels-type pose, prompting chuckles from around the room. She invites us to glue our components to the base when we’re ready. I’ve resisted the call of the many flowers or feathers on the table, keeping my design quite simple, featuring a lone white flower. Her advice still rings in my ears: “If you have too much on, it looks like you need a neck brace to hold your head up. You want to have lightness, line... a balance between the components.”
When it comes to inspiration for her own designs, Lindeman shares that “...it’s an intersection between lots of different things”. It could be a particular material that opens up interesting possibilities but she also enjoys plundering history, confiding: “I love historical fashion and historical millinery. To be honest, there’s nothing new under the sun but it’s the way it comes together.”
With headwear fashion in Malaysia still a long way from garnering a similar level of interest as in Australia, Europe or the USA, could millinery ever be en vogue for Malaysians?
“If I were looking at how to persuade a Malaysian woman to wear headwear, I’d get her to make them and then say what are you going do with that? One of the girls here today said she’d wear this to a wedding. You could also wear a head piece to daytime gatherings, garden parties, that kind of thing. Also evening wear...” Lindeman’s words trail off as she springs up to retrieve a red palm frond design that she promptly places on her head like a headband. “If you were to have a beautiful evening gown, you could put that on and your hair is taken care of. It’s not much beyond a hair accessory.”
Hardly noticeable like wearing earrings, my creation is perched on my head, from the moment I first tried it on. Even throughout the whole interview, I leave it on and funnily enough, I find myself sitting a little more poised, just like a “real” lady. I’m tempted to glide through the hotel lobby wearing it but decide instead to keep it for another occasion. Anyone having a wedding or a garden party soon?