How to choose the perfect hat for every occasion

The singer-songwriter Sia recently had a hit with her version of  “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” writes Hilary Alexander. You could just as easily substitute the word ‘hat’.

stephen jones main feature image

Image: Kurtiss Lloyd model Helena Greyhorse wearing hat by Philip Treacy 

Hats are now an accepted addition to the celebrity wardrobe-arsenal. Whether it’s Jennifer Aniston in a Trilby, Beyoncé in a small-brim ‘pork-pie’, Pharrell Williams in his Vivienne Westwood ’10-gallon’ cowboy topper, Taylor Swift in a fedora, or little Harper Beckham in a floppy felt by Chloé, the hat has emerged as THE accessory, as essential as the statement bag or the must-have shoes.

But while casual, daytime headwear may remain on the subdued side of the millinery spectrum, summer’s social whirl, with weddings, garden parties, race days, and Royal Ascot all on the agenda, demands a more exuberant approach. Just look at the massive black tilted Philip Treacy titfer trimmed with pink roses Pixie Lott wore for Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot last year.

We spoke to “the tops” in Fenwick Bond Street’s millinery department to discover inspirations for the new season, top trends, and tips for finding your perfect hat.

You can also meet Fenwick Bond Street's star milliners in store between June 1 and 12

Stephen Jones OBE

One of the world’s best-known milliners, London-based Stephen Jones has designed hats for the best designers on the planet, including Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo, Victoria Beckham, Marc Jacobs, John Galliano, Raf Simons at Dior, Nicolas Ghesquière’s first show for Balenciaga, Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Giles Deacon, as well as working on major Hollywood movies. His clientele during a 35-year-career includes everyone from Boy George, Take That and Diana, Princess of Wales, to Mick Jagger, Nicole Kidman, Dita Von Teese, Rihanna and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

His s/s15 collection is called “Hothouse”, which he describes as a mash-up of tropical flowers and the style of his good friend, the DJ, Princess Julia. “I’ve used strong colours like fuschia, turquoise and coral, and big shapes which give height or a ‘halo’ effect. The key is sparkle! Individuality!” he says.

Stephen’s Suggestions

  • When choosing your hat, choose it for the person you want to be, not necessarily who you are.
  • Have fun!

Philip Treacy OBE

Philip Treacy shares the global renown millinery crown with Stephen Jones, having ‘hatted’ an equally impressive blue-chip roll-call including the Duchesses of Cambridge and Cornwall, Grace Jones, Sarah Jessica Parker, Demi Moore and Lady Gaga, just for starters. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, the County Galway-born, London-based milliner, he was championed by the late Isabella Blow, who was never fully dressed without a PT hat.

He has also designed for Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Valentino, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, as well as designing the hats for the Harry Potter films, and creating a capsule make-up range for MAC. His collection is dramatic and sumptuous, incorporating billowing rosettes, cascading bows, sweeping feathers, and graphic, hand-cut arrows.

New shapes include the sweeping wave, floating cloud and deep upturn, with a spring palette of shocking lime-green, purple and neon-pink.

Philip’s Pointers

  • Success lies in balancing your personality with your hat.
  • Try, try and try again; choosing the best style is a matter of trial and error.

Jane Taylor

Jane Taylor was “discovered” by the Countess of Wessex, and has become one of the Duchess of Cambridge’s favourite milliners. Her hats are also worn by Kate Moss, Rita Ora, Kim (Sears) Murray, Coco Rocha, and European royalty.

“Since the rules at Ascot have changed, women aren’t allowed to wear little fascinators in the Royal enclosure, so this has pushed the trend towards tailored, cocktail hats, classic big-brims and disc-shapes,” she explains.

Her collection takes inspiration from the 60’s and 70’s, with floral prints, natural roses, and stylised patterns with hints of black. Tulle, tassels, floral feathers and fringing are key embellishments, with the colour palette including neon-paprika, masala, and nautical navy/white.

Jane’s Jewels

  • Always think about your silhouette as a whole; hats can be an amazing style statement so make sure your dress does not fight with your headwear.
  • Make sure your hair is neatly up, or if you prefer to wear it down keep it off your face.
  • Don’t wear sunglasses with a hat.
  • If wearing a cocktail hat, make sure it sits above your right eyebrow.

Vivien Sheriff

Carole Middleton is just one of the illustrious clients who visits Vivien Sheriff’s unique millinery studio, established eight years ago in converted farm buildings just outside Salisbury.

And both the Duchess of Cambridge and her sister Pippa are happy converts, too, to Vivien’s signature style which combines femininity and drama.

She has a passion for heritage, and this is evident in her new collection which features vintage sequined fabrics, Silver Tail pheasant feathers, and spike-y, dyed goose feathers, contoured into sculptural shapes in both saturated ‘Polaroid” shades and pastels.

Vivien’s Values

  • Always take your outfit with you when shopping for a hat.
  • Make sure your hat fits; one that’s too big or too small can be as uncomfortable to wear as badly-fitting shoes.
  • Wear your hat with confidence.

Piers Atkinson

Piers Atkinson, son of theatrical milliner, Hilary Eliot, who launched his own label in 2008, has seen his hats grace the heads of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, Kate Moss, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Paloma Faith, among others.

His inspiration is based on growth and nurturing. “My sister, who models my hats, has just given birth, so I’m now an uncle, and both my grandmother and mother are artists and gardeners," Atkinson says.

"My themes are English country garden flowers and rockeries, with a few garden gnomes and snails to cheer things up.”

Piers’ Pointers:

  • There are a lot of rules about face shape and size of hats, but it’s basically common sense; look in the mirror and see how you feel.
  • Bigger hats are a trend, and wider brims are making a comeback.
  • A hat doesn’t have to be worn straight on top; try it on the side of your head, at a 45 degree angle.

William Chambers

Glasgow-based, award-winning milliner, William Chambers, has won Best Accessory Designer three times in the Scottish Fashion Awards.

His celebrity clients include Roisin Murphy, Joan Jett, Ana Matronic, Kelis, Livia Firth, wife of Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth, and fashionista, Anna Della Russo.

His collection is based on the work of Scottish artist, J.D. Fergusson; in particular his portraits of ladies in hats. “The references span a few decades, and there’s a nod to the 20’s, 30’s, and the Edwardians, with a modern take," Chambers explains.

"I’ve mixed the avant-garde and wearability, and juxtaposed classic and modernist materials, like felt Latex, plastic and metallic leather.”

William’s Words

  • Try on as many hats as possible; start with the biggest and work your way down.
  • Don’t be scared to experiment.

Noel Stewart

Royal College of Art graduate, Noel Stewart, is renowned for contemporary innovation and has worked with directional young designers including Sibling, JW Anderson, Gareth Pugh, Erdem, Ryan Lo, Holly Fulton and Roksanda Ilincic, as well as Viktor & Rolf, and Hussein Chalayan.

Fans of his hi tech-high chic include Keira Knightley, FKA Twigs, and Miranda Kerr. Noel is also creative director of historic British hat-makers, Christys’, established in 1773.

His collection is based on an electrical storm in an English country garden, with iridescent organza “thunder-clouds”, hand-painted rose-petals, digitally-painted silk, holographic plastic, PVC, and large goose feathers.

Noel’s Notes

  • “Play” with hats, and try on lots of different styles.
  • Be prepared to spend a few hours and look at different angles.
  • Hats are now an accepted accessory, not just for weddings or special occasions; we’re re-learning the ability to experiment.

Lizzie McQuade

Scottish-born, London-based Lizzie McQuade worked with Piers Atkinson, before setting up her own millinery business two years ago.

She has become recognised for her sculptural, quirky shapes with hand-crafted trims, beading, embroidery and dip-dyeing.

Her collection is inspired by Marie-Antoinette’s ‘Petit Trianon’ at Versailles, mixing pastoral references with opulence, and contrasting iridescent acetate, gold-spot silk and gold details, with leather flowers.

Lizzie’s Lore

  • Wearing hats is a lot about confidence and how you feel.
  • The perfect hat is the one that makes you feel good.
  • There’s a growing younger market now for head-dresses which bridge the gap between no-hat and full-on millinery.

By Hilary Alexander