It was customary to wear a hat until after the Second World War. Combined with gloves, it was a symbol of refinement and good manners. Both men and women would wear a hat, to provide protection from the cold in winter and from the sun in summer. A sun tan was definitely not ‘in’, because it was a sign that you worked outdoors and performed manual labour.
Millinery is quite difficult and very labour-intensive. For a long time, it was also a hazardous job because of the mercury fumes released during the processing of skins. Fortunately, this hazard was eliminated by the end of the 19th century.
Most hats are made of felt, a non-woven type of fabric made from compressed animal hair or wool. Any type can be felted but rabbit, beaver, camel and natural sheep’s wool are the most popular.
Because the milliner made hats to measure, the workshop is packed with hat moulds. Once the milliner had measured your head, he would take the appropriate mould from the rack and start work. First the felt would be moistened with a mixture or gelatine and warm water. The felt would be stretched across the hat mould and left to dry, allowing the gelatine to stiffen. The edge would be cut off and replaced with a sewn-on hat brim. Even in that position, the hat had to remain securely stretched on the mould and left to cool and dry.
It would be finished with a simple fabric band at the edge or a band with a bow. Ladies’ hats were often decorated more frivolously with feathers or flowers. A leather strip was attached to the inside to prevent the hat from stretching and losing shape. More expensive versions also had a silk lining.
The hats displayed in this workshop were donated by three Bruges based milliners: J. and A. Hellebaut-Bassens, Florent Machiels and ‘Nella’ Cornelia Vertriest.
Part of Nella’s collection can be seen in the display cabinet. She was mainly known for her ladies’ hats made of various fabrics and reinforced with jute. Several much older ladies’ hats are displayed at the top left-hand side of the cabinet. They were made approximately 150 years ago from woven reed strips.
The top hat appeared on the street scene from approximately 1796. The dandies who first wore these hats caused quite a furore with their unusual apparel, and some were even arrested. But the top hat soon gained in popularity among the upper classes, first in England and then on the Continent too. In nineteenth-century caricatures and later cartoons, the hat was seen as a symbol of the capitalist elite and their profiteering.
After the Second World War, the top hat was only worn for special occasions such as weddings or funerals. Nowadays, you will only come across it as a dressing-up item for Carnival or Halloween, or as a magician’s attribute to magically pull a rabbit from his hat.
Milliners use a conformateur to precisely adapt a bowler hat or silk hat to the dimensions and contour of the customer’s head. The upper part of the instrument is placed on the customer’s head. A series of pins on top of the conformateur indicates the reduced head circumference. A sheet of paper is pressed onto the pins to copy this image. The cut out drawing in the shape of the head is placed in the template of the conformateur or ‘formillon’. The latter now records the precise measurement and contour of the customer’s head. Finally, the hat is pressed onto the formillon and steamed. After a while, the hat will have taken on the shape and will ‘fit like a glove’.
A number of special irons are lined up on the Leuven stove. They were used by the milliner to iron the edges of a hat.
A hat block consists of two oval-shaped hard wood sections that can be unscrewed. Milliners used a hat block to pull the hats into shape and iron them again.