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Women's History Month: Millinery as a Woman's Profession

Hats have existed in the past and the present both as a functional and decorative accessory. The profession devoted to making hats, or milliners as they were called, was primarily dominated by women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, we are going to look at the origins of the millinery trade and highlight one of several millinery businesses which thrived in this area.

The word “milliner” originally meant “someone from Milan”, as the city of Milan in Italy was famous as the center for commerce in the medieval and Renaissance periods. This term referred to Milanese merchants who would sell high-end goods such as gloves, jewelry, and cutlery. Over time, the meaning of the term shifted from the original meaning of a foreign merchant to one who would deal in articles of dress, namely hats. Additionally, the reason for women wearing headgear in public spaces has its roots in the Middle Ages, where the Church declared that women were obliged to cover their hair for the sake of modesty, usually in the form of coifs or linen headpieces. Due to this need, making hats resembled a small craft industry that was restricted to individual women in the household. By the 18th century, the art of hat-making moved out of the home and became a salaried, respectable profession.

Hats would be created on a hat form, which is a wooden block carved in the shape of a person’s head. Milliners also have a wealth of these types of forms to accommodate different types of hats, as well as different hat sizes. After selecting the desired hat size, the milliner would form the shape of the hat out of a material known as buckram, which is a type of stiff cotton cloth with a loose weave. Buckram is coated with a specific type of starch which, when it becomes submerged in water, will allow it to dry stiffly in place. Many different things could then be attached to the hat, such as the following materials:

· Straw,

· Flowers (roses, pansies, lilacs, etc.)

· Ribbons,

· Silk,

· Velvet,

· Lace.

In the late nineteenth century, dressmaking and millinery became known as a skilled trade in which many women could earn an income. For example, Miss Helen Garnett, a dressmaker from Toronto who was consulted on a government survey regarding labor and industry in 1889, reported that she employed twenty-five people in her millinery business in downtown Toronto; her apprentices would train for three to four years to get to a level of skill sufficient that “she rewarded them with forty dollars per month.”[1]

In every rural town and community in Ontario, there would be a milliner serving the fashion needs of the community. One such businesswoman was Lilly McKewon, born to John and Eliza McKewon in 1865. In the Ontario census of 1881, her father was listed as an “auctioneer”, and owned and operated the Royal Oak Hotel for several years. After the death of her father, Lilly’s brother Stafford McKewon took possession of the hotel. In this same year, Lilly opened a millinery shop on the second floor of Allan Theaker’s general store who supplied the residents of Mount Albert with the current styles in hats. Some years later, “the millinery shop was moved to a building two lots south present of the I.O.O.F. Hall around 1900.”[2] Other milliners were also active in the area in places such as Newmarket and Sutton.

Fig. 1: Interior view of millinery shop in Mount Albert. Found in Gladys Rolling's East Gwillimbury in the Nineteenth Century (1967).

Do you have any fond memories of the types of hats you used to wear? Please let us know in the comments section below!

[1] Bates, Christina (2000). “Wearing Two Hats: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Millinery Trade in Ontario, 1850 – 1930”. In Material History Review 52 (Spring), 18. Retrieved from [2] Rolling, Gladys (1967). East Gwillimbury in the 19th Century: A Centennial History of the Township of East Gwillimbury. Toronto: Ryerson Press. 131.

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