It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British public has a special relationship with hats. Headpieces often take center stage at occasions like weddings, funerals or even at horse races in England, where feathery fascinators and sizeable statement pieces are favored over traditional trilbies or wide-brimmed berets.
It’s no coincidence that the Queen is known to finish off an outfit with a perfectly-matching hat; Britain’s longest-reigning monarch is estimated to have worn about 5,000 different hats over the past 50 years. The Queen even has her own bespoke designer milliner to see to her every headpiece need.
But why do the British love their hats? And is there specific headwear and hat-wearing etiquette we expect at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding in Windsor on May 19? TIME put various hat-related questions to leading British luxury milliner Vivien Sheriff, who has famously worked with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, as well as other notable royals and heads of states.
TIME: Why do you think the British love hats?
Vivien Sheriff: Hats are very unique to the British, particularly wearing hats to weddings. In Europe and North America, people now tend to wear far more casual clothes. The way the British prepare for weddings — the amount of preparation that goes in and the elegance [of their outfits] — is a truly unique concept. A lot of people will seize the moment, the opportunity, to be able to finish off their outfits with a hat or a headpiece.
Do you think this love of hats is influenced by the royal family?
Yes, I think it does channel down. People are so interested in seeing what the beautiful young royals are wearing and obviously what her Majesty wears as well — she wears such beautiful colors. It does definitely filter down to what the masses wear.
Which types of hats do you think we will see at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding?
It’s going to be fun, isn’t it, looking at them all? It wouldn’t be so bad if we saw some unusual hats [like at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s 2011 wedding]. Princesses Beatrice’s incredible hat wasn’t one of ours but I really admired it — I really liked it. It was hard on her that the hat got so much criticism — I hope the press don’t do that again to anybody.
I think there will be a lot of tilted, disc shaped hats as they’re very easy to wear. And then more elaborate headpieces like berets, particularly the blocked beret shape which lots of the royal family wear. Also feathers and lots of color; because of the time of year, people won’t be scared of wearing fun, beautiful colors. There will of course be lovely traditional hats too, with big brims. But I think there will mainly be lots of disc shapes.
Are you working on any hats for royal wedding guests?
All I can tell you is that we are currently working on some, but we are not saying who we’re making for. Some of those hats are are being blocked at the moment; they’re being formed into shapes and the fabric has already been dyed. Others have been finished and one is having Swarovski crystals put on it. Another is having seed pearls. It’s a real honor to be making them.
How did you get involved in the hat business?
I used to buy and sell beautiful, vintage antique fabrics and old clothes; I was always interested in textiles. I then thought I could find a new way of working with fabrics to make them into really wearable, beautiful headpieces. And so the business evolved.
How many hats do you make in a week?
It depends. Sometimes we could do as few as 20 and other times we could get through about 120!
Is it just women who wear hats?
We mainly make for women but we do have more casual hats for men. They’re mainly straw hats, Panama hats and things like that. Lots of young men would love to wear a great trilby if they had one, so let’s hope that market does grow.
How many wears does one hat tend to have?
It’s amazing; people really will wear their pieces again and again which is great and it’s what we want. There are some people who come back and get a new hat every couple of years, but others will re-wear or rotate their hats.
Is there any hat-wearing etiquette worth knowing about?
For a sombre occasion one normally wears something stately and perhaps nothing frivolous. Something that is very neat and elegant, and obviously with dark colors. We do a beret shape for more sombre occasions like memorial services. It also depends on the season; for winter a dark trilby or a dark beret can be popular, and if it’s a sombre occasion in the spring it is common to wear something subtle made out of straw.
And what about weddings?
We do a lot of hats for mothers of the bride. The mother of the bride has to think about how her hat will look in photos. Firstly, she doesn’t want a shadow to be cast on her face. Secondly, she wants the radiance of her smile to be seen in photographs and of course when she’s greeting her guests — when you haven’t seen people for a long time you really want to seize that moment so there’s nothing worse than wearing something too big and feeling hidden.
We must not forget that a lot of people aren’t used to wearing hats, so we have to make sure that the pieces we are designing are comfortable, suit people and are not difficult to work out how to wear.
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