Put on Your Derby Hat

May 2, 2013

Milliner Fielden Willmott in her shop with her hats
Credit Stu Johnson / Weku News

The Kentucky Derby is known for a lot of things.  It’s the “Fastest Two Minutes in Sports,” “Millionaires’ Row,” and mint juleps.  Then there are the Derby fashions.  A major part of the derby tradition lies in the heads of women attending the races.   It’s also a busy time of year for a Lexington artisan.

Fielden Willmott remembers a battle, several years ago, with insomnia.  The Lexington milliner would lay awake in bed with ‘these hats in her head that had to get out.’  These hats, now they’re getting out.  From the outside, her business in downtown Lexington is unassuming.  Once, inside, customers are drawn to a wall full of dress hats. On this day, back on her work bench sits a hat on a hand crafted ‘hat block.’

“This hat that you see right here is known as a cloche.  It is really what we think of as a flapper hat.  It’s a beld crown, a domed crown and it’s long, it comes down on each side.  So, this particular hat is velour,” said Willmott.

As a child, Willmott says her grandmother first gave her the itch to stitch.  Eventually, it took her to New York where she spent time with mentor Anya Caliendo and learned the deliberate meticulous sewing techniques.

“It’s a beautiful fun process.  It’s time consuming.  This hat, I’ll probably spend seven , six seven, let’s say between six and eight  hours let’s say on this hat.   And what will you do during those six or seven hours?  I stitch tiny stitches.  Some of them have to be invisible,” said Willmott.

On some of the more difficult hats, Willmott uses a dozen or more distinct sewing techniques.  For example, there is a special way to tackle wide-brimmed hats.

“The process for covering the brims for those, that pink hat on the left that you see, I use a technique to cover the brim that the woman that I studied in New York taught me that she developed.  It’s a very couture technique.  There’s no way you could do it with a machine,” added Willmott. 

The weeks leading up the Kentucky Derby are, understandably, a very busy time of year for milliners.  Before post time on the first Saturday in May, Fielden Willmlott will handcraft 25 hats for the Kentucky Oaks and Derby.  Willmott admits she has special standards when making ‘derby hats.’   She doesn’t believe ‘just because you can put something on a hat, you should put something on a hat.”

“You should wear the hat, the hat should not wear you.  And we’ve all seen photos where the hat is wearing the woman and the really beautiful look and really beautiful photos, I think, and the really beautiful looks are the women that look beautiful in the hat and they are really owning the hat and you can tell,” said Willmott.

For the 28 year old Willmott, it is certainly a process.  Initially, she sits down with prospective customers and talks about a typical day and inquires about preferences in color, styles, and even favored fashions from history.  The materials for her hats come from places like Austrialia, Ecuador, the Czech Republic, and Great Britain.  The hats range in cost from about one hundred dollars up to a thousand dollars.  And she makes hats for both women and men.

In late April, Megan Winfield came by Willmott’s millinery with dress in hand to pick up her hat.  After a quick look, the hat goes on her head and the two women stand before a full length mirror.  It was a return visit for Winfield.  She bought a hat a year ago at Derby time.  For a great look, Winfield says the customer, her dress maker and the milliner must work together.

“It’s really a collaborative effort.  I mean, you have a dress and you have somebody’s style and then there’s,  you know your gonna be photographed in this piece so it really does have to be a collaboration that everybody’s gonna be happy with and Fielden is great at listening and incorporating what ever you say and then she’s super creative.  She always comes up with that surprises and amazes me,” explained Winfield.

And there are those personal touches which come with a handmade hat.  Willmott points to a hand stitched ‘antique lace’ on the underside of a ‘complex fascinator’ hat.

“I know that you can’t see it when you look at the hat unless you look up really closely, but for me, it’s very important for the hat to be as beautiful on the inside as the out.  And sometimes I tuck little hidden gems or little hidden secrets in the hats because the wearer knows and they get to walk around with their own little private secret for the day which is great fun,” said Willmott