It’s Royal Ascot in England this week, a five day meet of competitive and elite Thoroughbred racing. Of course, that’s what it’s meant to be, but our eyes are on the fashion — especially the hats. Oh the thousands of hats parading in each day… there are even betting pools on what color the Queen’s will be. I adore the large ones that sweep through the crowds and small fascinators full of feathers and chic glamour. Having myself toiled over matching the perfect hat to an outfit, I know the pressure of picking five for each day of the meet.
I started to wonder what really goes into making and matching these statement pieces. Luckily I live in the Bluegrass, where we ourselves are pretty fond of hats — particularly on the First Saturday in May. Just down the road in Georgetown, Kentucky, is a very talented Milliner, Polly Singer — she was sweet enough to sit down with me and go over what it takes to stand out.
On Becoming a Milliner
Singer is a Kentucky girl who spent 13 years in New York having a very successful career behind the scenes in the music industry. She says one day she got a hairbrush stuck in her hair while running late for work. She popped on a hat and to her surprise got so many compliments on it that she started to wear them often. Singer became so interested in them, in fact, that she changed careers and studied at the top Fashion Institute of Technology to become a full-time milliner.
After moving back to the Bluegrass in 2004, she launched her website and she says it just took off from there. Her work has since been featured in People Magazine, The Today Show, the Wall Street Journal and of course her designs are always on the who’s who at the Derby. Here she gives us a behind the scenes on going from concept to finish line for the perfect headpiece.
Handcrafting Each Piece
“Some clients buy ready-made pieces off my website, others want it to match a specific dress or send me pictures of styles they want to emulate,” says Singer about how she usually gets started. “I will order all the components, such as feathers, or the base for the piece.” She explains that the accessories come from all over the world, “This flower was from New York, this feather comes from England from the same company that supplies BBC Productions, Downtown Abbey and even the Royal Family. Which is so fun to me, to know you could be wearing something that its sister piece is possibly on the Queen herself!”
Once all the supplies come in, she sketches out designs to get approval from the client. From there she has to form the base; I watched as she soaked a mesh material then used a 100 year old wooden form to make the shape of the hat. “I collect supplies that are new, but I love vintage items as well. Ninety-nine percent of what I use is organic material; if you’re going to wear something on your body, I want it to be as natural as possible. Plus it’s just prettier!” Looking through her studio you can see her inspiration: postcards of Paris, Audrey Hepburn photographs and boxes and boxes of materials are neatly organized in her charming light filled space.
I pointed to a particular hat on her rack of finished ones and asked how long it took her to create. “Oh that one was a long one; it took me about three weeks to finish. You have to form it, block it, sew in the wire, sew in all the accoutrements and then perfect its shape again and again.” She says that sometimes it can be a toiling job, but that its “so rewarding to see the finished product on someone who is having a special and happy day.”
After seeing her work, I better understand why certain hats can be a little on the pricier side. The materials alone are a huge expense, and they are so fragile to work with. I do love the idea that a hat I wear has pieces from three different countries and is handmade in an entirely different one. When I tell her this she says the story of the hat is her favorite part, “I loved seeing my hat on Hannah Pletcher when her dad won the Derby. I opened the paper and there she was in my creation on this joyous day of her life. One day her granddaughter might open a hat box and know that this piece not only shows a lot about Hannah’s personality, but also this story of such a special moment for her.” I relate to this right away, thinking of hats I have of my own grandmother and how they are in fact heirlooms that represent the curiosity of the original wearer.
We chat a little about inspiration, as she has a varied style from a quaint, vintage looks to a very modern hat made out of horse shoes. “Oh that one with the horse shoes was a challenge; the first one I had a farrier weld them together and it was this heavy, but really neat piece. When I made similar ones later I used plastic shoes. It was a lot easier to wear. You live and learn, right?!” she laughs as I try on a gorgeous orange and white fascinator. Singer points out another piece and says “I love to watch what’s coming out of Australia; they’re really big on their hats there, and of course England. I like to take what speaks to me but is also trendy. You have to walk a fine line of what will sell and what is coming out of you creatively.”
I have worn so many hats over the years and ask her how to pick the perfect one. “There is no perfect hat for everyone; it’s just all about your style. I love to see my pieces with the entire finished outfit, how women pair it with their purses and jewelry. A hat can transform an outfit, but so can an outfit transform a hat. The key to it all is to wear it with confidence. I really get as much joy seeing you wear it as you do to actually wear it; it’s great how something as small as a hat can connect people.” I couldn’t agree with her more; I love to see on social media how Pomegranate items are used in our customers’ homes. “Exactly, it’s something you’ve put your whole heart and soul into every time, every piece and to see it be part of something special for someone is just so rewarding.”
Now is the perfect time to tune into Ascot and start getting ideas for your Breeders Cup or Derby hats. Polly’s got a ton of options on her website, but I love the idea of having a custom hat made just for me. She gets busy fast and her studio is by appointment only, so make sure to get the ball rolling. As you know, I love to support other artists and entrepreneurs and this milliner has me pining for hats for every occasion!
Thank you, Polly Singer, for enlightening us on the joys of being a milliner and for sharing the photos of your wonderful hats!