image © Nina Davis,

At the Drop of a Hat

6th September 2019

Want to look taller, slimmer and more elegant…Lisa Botwright tells you how.

You only have to look at pictures from the last few royal weddings to see that hats are still very much in vogue. Not that they’ve ever really been out of fashion, in one form or another – from the Jackie O pillar box hats in the 60s to the noughties’ fascination for fascinators. Classic and timeless, hats elevate an outfit in a unique way, and make the wearer feel appropriately pulled together and dressed up. If you love a bit of sartorial planning, hats are just one more way to express yourself in a fun and dramatic style.

So what’s wedding etiquette when it comes to headgear? Usually the earlier in the day the event, the greater the opportunity to experiment. As the sun goes down, so too should the size of your hat. You can simply remove it for the reception (easier said than done with certain hair styles, so it’s helpful if you’re staying over and can nip to your room to smooth out the dreaded ‘hat hair’), or swap it for a cocktail hat (more on this later), hair accessory or fascinator.

You’ve also got to consider the other guests. While your fabulous creation may raise smiles when you greet friends and family, it will no doubt raise eyebrows too, when it blocks Auntie Maud’s view of the proceedings. Think finesse, rather than flamboyance. Then it’s simply about what suits you and your outfit. If you’re petite, a large hat might drown you (you should wear the hat, not let the hat wear you); on the other hand, if you’re tall and confident then you need millinery to match. But there are no hard and fast rules. Often it’s a matter of trying on all different styles and shapes to find ‘the one’.

I visit Nina Davis, a Pinner-based milliner who makes bespoke designs from a studio at her home, for some expert advice. “One thing I’ve noticed is that no one design is any more popular than another; people like all kinds of styles, especially when they can see how they look on. Hats create an imbalance in your face, which is so elegant,” she tells me. “Think of old Hollywood glamour.” Apparently, with Ascot, (the highlight of the British Flat racing season), you start with the hat: “the crazier, the better”. But with weddings “you start with the outfit”.

Nina’s studio is a riotous treasure trove of colour, with a myriad of basic hat shapes hung on the walls and drawers full of flowers, feathers, silks and lace to turn them into one-off creations. She shows me some vintage pearls she’s sourced to exactly match a client’s outfit.

I tell her about a smart event I’m going to later in the year, and describe the outfit that I’m planning to wear. What sort of a hat would suit me, I ask, as keen as a seven year-old ready to dive into a friend’s dressing up box.

I’m amazed at how different the various options look when I try them on, and at how things that I think will work actually look terrible (“no, I’m not mad on this one for you”, she frowns). Styles I never would have have considered without Nina’s gentle encouragement look… well… transformational.

I’m taken by the way Nina can instantly tweak how something looks simply by slightly changing the angle (many hats are meant to be worn on a slant, traditionally tilted to the right, she explains) or by pinning on the simplest decoration to the basic shape. She also shows me tricks to style my hair, such as tucking the length into the ‘invisible elastic’ of a hat, which has the double benefit of looking chic, while keeping everything firmly in place.

One thing I learn is her disdain for a fascinator – “ugh, a chicken bottom on a comb,” she says with an entertaining eye-roll. “Milliners hate the word ‘fascinator’.” She tells me that people use the word mistakenly, when often they mean ‘hair accessory’ or ‘cocktail hat’, the latter being a typically brimless and highly decorated affair, in the past only suitable for evening wear, but now for anyone who wants a hat they can keep on all day and evening without giving their outfit another thought.

One particular hat makes me stand up straighter. Without any exaggeration, it entirely changes my carriage and posture – and puts a huge smile on my face. (“Sensational!”, Nina beams). I think this is what’s known as the elusive ‘one’.

“People often say to me they haven’t got a hat face, and then they try on the right one, look in the mirror and say ‘ooh’. Everyone has different requirements for what they want to get out of an outfit and some want something that will make them look taller and slimmer. The right shoes, the right dress, the right hat, can all help you do this.”

Finally, she says emphatically, “a hat must do something for the lady, not to her: it must make any lady feel the best she can possibly be.”

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