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Millinery Through Time Highlights

I was thoroughly impressed with my first conference experience at Colonial Williamsburg, last month’s 60th anniversary celebration of the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop. The presentations were interesting and well-researched, and I came home inspired, my brain buzzing with new information and ideas. Obviously, I can’t share all of the speaker’s hard work on my blog, but I can talk about a few of the program highlights.

Monday’s program opened with a fascinating talk from Janea Whitacre, head milliner and mantua maker at CW, which included an overview of the 18th century millinery trade, as well as a discussion of the different classifications of milliner. She listed off some of the many types of milliners, such as a black milliner who deals in mourning wear; where as a white milliner would deal with wedding accessories. A private milliner would wait on a wealthy client in their home, but a chamber milliner would work and keep a stock of items in her own home. And then there is the hedge milliner, a shady figure who used the trade as a front for prostitution. As many of the other speakers would discuss, the association between milliners and dubious respectability reoccurs often in the contemporary press of the 18th and early 19th century. There was a pervasive link in the public consciousness that engaging in the millinery trade, especially without strong moral guidance, could lead to a loss of virtue in young women and eventual prostitution.    

Janea also explained how milliners might incorporate other branches of the same trade family into their business. For example, a colonial milliner might also work with a trim maker or an artificial flower maker or an embroider to complete the dress or accessory for their customer. Since all these separate skills were needed to complete a fashionable ensemble, it makes sense that they would overlap and that there would be less diversification of trade in areas with smaller populations.

Finally, the talk closed with a practical exploration of the milliner’s skills. First Janea pleated an early 18th century mantua on the form, taking it from a simple t-shaped garment into a fitted dress.

Then, apprentice milliner and mantua-maker, Sarah Woodyard, demonstrated the process of 18th century dress making on a live model. Sarah took us through the first step of cutting out or draping the lining, while Janea explained the other two steps – fitting and making up. The pattern was draped directly on the client, the fashion fabric was cut out using this pattern, and the dress constructed.

Overall, it was an absolutely fascinating way to start the conference and introduce the topics that the rest of the speakers would expand upon later in the program.
Posted: 4/3/2014 2:58:15 PM by Aubry | with comments
Filed under: conferences
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