Let’s Talk About Custom Hats | Modern Millinery

Millinery Operations with Kristin Silverman

Custom hats are on my brain for two reasons: 1. I recently finished two custom-order hats. 2. Racing events (Kentucky Derby, Royal Ascot) are coming up that often involve custom hats. For the first part, I’ll take you on a quick tour of my process, and for the second part, I reached out to fabulous fellow milliner Laura Del Villaggio of Milli Starr to talk about some racewear piece she’s made! (So a huge shout out and thank you to her for contributing to this post.)

Ordering a custom hat can be a little like ordering off the menu at Cheesecake Factory! (For those of you who don’t know, Cheesecake Factory restaurants have a notoriously huge menu, with too many choices.) You can choose almost anything — and that can make it harder to choose.

white fedora
Custom white fedoras for two different customers.

Even if you think you know what you want (say, a white felt fedora), the options of trimmings, size, crown height, brim width, type of felt, etc., etc. can feel overwhelming. Your milliner is here to guide you through it!

There’s a balancing act between presenting customers with all the options and bombarding them with decisions. And there’s a balancing act between letting the customer choose everything and when the milliner’s expertise should dictate.

If you’re a customer, buying a custom hat is more effort than buying a ready-to-wear hat from a shop. Custom hats are also more work for the milliner . (Some milliners won’t do custom orders because of the extra time. Other milliners love the collaborative process.)

Anyhow, if you want to order a custom hat from a milliner, here’s some info about the process:

• Be prepared to pay a 50% non-refundable deposit, with the balance due before shipping. It has been my policy. And Laura (Milli Starr) has the exact same policy. I think it’s pretty standard in the millinery world. Different milliners might be more or less strict about what kind of design work they’ll do before deposit. But a commitment is needed before ordering any materials not on hand or starting work on the hat.

• What’s it for? An everyday hat needs to fit your head and suit your style. A hat for a special event might have to accommodate a fancy updo, be dyed to match a specific dress, etc.

blue fedora
Peacock blue custom fedora I recently completed.

The hat above was for a client who liked a similarly shaped hat I had done in yellow. She wanted it in a different color, and listed several vibrant shades she liked. We settled on this peacock blue felt and then chose trimming options she liked. The process was about her personal style, rather than specific outfits or events.

On the other hand, some hats have to match not only a specific outfit, but rules! As Laura points out,

For my race attendees, we discuss the specific event as some venues have a specific dress code or traditional colors or themes. For example, Royal Ascot (June 19-23, 2018) has strict dress codes for each enclosure. https://www.ascot.co.uk/Royal-Ascot

Here’s a piece she made to many more specifications than just “Does it look pretty?”

The Royal Enclosure requires “formal daywear” and hats are preferred to fascinators. Any fascinator must have a base of at least 4” diameter. Client Shari knew she wanted a brimmed hat for the Royal Enclosure, to comply with dress code and for sun protection during the day. She had an off-white lace dress but wanted to add a bit of color with the accessories. The custom sinamay hat was blocked in white with neutral and blush tone feather trims to match her Tory Burch clutch and pearl-studded heels by Stuart Weitzman.

custom sinamay hat
A custom hat by Milli Starr, designed to match shoes, clutch and dress — and to comply with the dress code.

• When do you need it? Plan ahead if you need a hat for a wedding, Kentucky Derby or another specific date. Laura says,

The average turnaround time for a custom order is 3 weeks, but that varies greatly depending on how many orders I have in queue. I am usually fully booked for Oaks Day and Kentucky Derby orders by mid-March. Those last orders in before my cut off date are finished and delivered the week before Derby — six weeks after the design was approved and deposit paid.

Three weeks is generally what I estimate, too. It can vary, though. If it’s a simple design using supplies I have in stock, that can be finished a lot more quickly than a hat that requires special-order materials or time-intensive design elements, such as beading or embroidery. And do your part on time. If you are choosing a ribbon color, don’t expect your hat to be finished in three weeks if it takes you 20 days to answer what color you want.

• What’s your budget and your priorities? There’s a saying I’ve heard in design circles: “You can have it fast. You can have it cheap. You can have it done well. You can pick two of the three. But you can’t have all three.”

Want a custom hat in less than three weeks? You might have to pay extra. Or it might not be exactly what you want or have some shortcuts. Likewise, when I quote my customers the total for a custom hat, I let them know that it includes a basic range of choices in terms of trimmings, etc. If they decide along the way that they want it to be studded all over with Swarovski crystals, they will have to pay more than the original price. If your priority is to have the most fabulous, perfect hat possible, it might be pretty expensive. If your priority is to spend as little money as possible, it might involve lower-quality materials or less-time-consuming techniques.

Any good milliner will be honest with you! If they can’t work within a certain budget, they will tell you so. Design-wise too. Any good milliner will also refuse to copy another designer’s work. Please do not ask a milliner to copy a hat !  (I had someone once ask me to duplicate a hat and after my list of the myriad things that would have to be different about it, she said she’d just buy the original. I said I thought that was an excellent decision!)

• Custom hats are worth it! Know how good you have it!

Whenever I make a custom hat, I pour my heart into it. I want my customers to love what I create for them. Laura is the same way. And I know many, many other milliners who go the extra mile to make people happy. Again, balance: A milliner should not be snippy or rude to a custom hat client, but a milliner also shouldn’t be a slave to endless revisions and a million emails back and forth.

Here are a few examples:

Debbie chose a royal blue one-shouldered dress for Derby 2017, along with a pair of low heels in fringed suede of navy, royal and turquoise. I designed a white sinamay hat with a royal blue silk rose, navy grosgrain band, and veiling. I added chenille dots to the veiling to match Debbie’s heels. It’s subtle details like this that really make the investment in a custom hat worthwhile.

custom hat by Milli Starr
Custom hat by Milli Starr with some special details.


I haven’t done much in the way of hats for racing events — though I happily would!

Most of my custom orders have been variations on previous styles I made. In the case of a rare, vintage 1920s appliqué, I painstakingly duplicated it in a different color palette for a custom order.

1920s embroidered cloches
A cloche on the left with a vintage embroidered appliqué. On the right, a reproduction of the appliqué. Both by Silverhill Creative Millinery.

And one more from Milli Starr.

3D percher hat with crinoline trim created for Briana Mott, who owns Fashion at the Races. http://fashionattheraces.com
FATR is dedicated to promoting horse racing and the fabulous fashions worn at the track — especially the millinery. … Bri had a sky blue Diane Von Furstenburg dress with diamond-shaped detailing and an asymmetrical ruffle. She would be wearing silver metallic heels. We didn’t have much time (about 10 days) so I had to work with materials on-hand and actually layered different colors of sinamay and crinoline to achieve a sky blue. I matched the diamond theme with the patterned crinoline and square studs. The result was edgy and ethereal, and much more labor intensive than I had anticipated.
sky blue fascinator
Custom hat by Milli Starr.

• So who’s going to make your hat? Find a milliner you like. There are so many styles out there, from simple to extravagant, and many milliners to choose from. Look at their other work to see if it fits your tastes and/or your budget. Even without asking for a formal quote, you can get a general idea from the prices of their other work. (Spoiler alert: A custom hat made by me will be less expensive than a custom hat by Philip Treacy.) Some milliners will even give you a recommendation for a different milliner if they’re booked or if they can’t meet your design or budget needs.

Custom hats for horse races probably far out-number custom everyday hats, so I hugely thank Laura Del Villaggio for contributing her expertise in making hats for the races:

Creating custom hats and headwear for women attending horse races accounts for a large percentage of my business each year. Most Americans are familiar with the Kentucky Derby and the dramatic wide brimmed hats worn by race attendees, but there are hundreds of horse races around the world each year. In many countries — Australia and England immediately come to mind — dressing for the races is a serious and competitive fashion endeavor. Women will often spend months, and thousands of dollars, assembling the perfect head-to-toe ensemble.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, “competitive” is literal, as many horse racing events have “Fashions on the Field” competitions to award the best-dressed women.

Whether it’s for the Kentucky Derby or just a casual wear-around-town hat, a custom designed hat is a great way to add something special to your wardrobe. Not a mass-produced piece that dozens of other people have. Something totally unique and 100% for you. I think that’s just fabulous!

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