Millinery: A History of Headwear and the Profession

Millinery: A History of Headwear and the Profession

For a while, during my exploring craft stage, I delved into the world of making hats and bonnets. Despite never being a huge fan of sewing, I discovered I was fairly good at it. I even opened an Etsy store and sold nearly all my stock! I ended up experimenting with my new-found crafting skills in mosaics, painting, and decoupage, amongst other creative endeavors, so have now closed the store. Nevertheless, as with all that I do, the first step is deep research. I am a perfectionist so have to do it right, and when taking on an utterly foreign endeavor, learning from the experts is a vital step.

Interestingly, as extensively as I have researched aspects of the Regency period in order to write my novels as historically accurate as possible, I hadn’t dug too deeply into the realm of hat making. As long as I didn’t plop a pillbox hat atop Elizabeth’s head or write Darcy donning a cowboy ten-gallon, I was okay! Right? Alas, that basic knowledge would not suffice if I was going to make hats and bonnets that were period appropriate. Now I can share the history of the artistic profession of millinery.


14th century headwear

The origins of wearing a head covering trace far into the past, the primary purpose as a protection from harsh weather and external elements. As civilizations became distinct and cultured, specific styles of headwear formed, most significantly as a visible sign of one’s rank and social standing. After all, in many instances a person’s head had the unique advantage of rising above the crowd. Additionally, a headdress served as a frame and/or topper to an important person’s face, where the focus of attention would be directed. Examples include the elaborate headdresses of Egyptian Pharaohs, the ornate wreaths crowning winners of the Olympic Games, the bejeweled crowns of European royalty, and the miters (mitres) and wraps of religious orders.

Throughout the ages, both men and women of all classes wore various forms of head coverings. Headscarves, veils, wraps, hats, and more can be seen in nearly every culture since the dawn of mankind. Largely the reason behind placing something atop the head was of a practical purpose, as noted above, or as a mark of modesty, marital status, social rank, and so on. While aesthetics and fashion often played a role, practicality and usefulness tended to be the driving force behind headwear design.

According to most sources, it was not until the 14th to 15th centuries that hats (using the term broadly) emerged in western cultures as a standard. It is essential to note that for well into the 17th century, headdresses for women were almost always a variation of a hood or cap designed to shroud the head and cover the hair. For most women, whether married, unmarried, or widowed, the modesty and decorum decreed by the church demanded simplistic styles with minimal adornments. This strict rule did not apply to women of society and aristocracy, of course, although the mandate to cover the hair (or most of it) still applied and ostentatious embellishments were frowned upon.

Women’s Headwear 15th and 16th Century

The three images I’ve tacked into this section show the varied and simplistic fashion for female headwear over the past centuries. If curious to see more, I suggest a Google or Pinterest search for period portraits. Also, a great blog with images (such as the one below) can be read here: A Glance at Female Headwear

16th century headscarves in drawings and portraits

Men, as opposed to women, more often wore grand hats of the finest materials with an array of gaudy trimmings, especially huge feathers. Think of the macaroni or dandy.

The switch in headwear design for the sexes was a gradual evolution owed largely to the artists from which the name now exclusively applied to a hat maker derives: MILLINER.


New knowledge to me was that the word “milliner” did not exist before the middle of the 16th century. Surprise! Hats were around, obviously, so where did the specific term derive?

At that time, the Duchy of Milan in Italy was the established destination to acquire luxury haberdashery fabrics, lace, ribbon, straw, and armor and swords. These quality “milanese” imports were highly prized by shopkeepers in England but not cheap to acquire and scattered amongst a handful of merchants throughout the city.

From a tragedy came good, in this case the Great Fire of London in 1655. In the rebuilding aftermath, new shopping districts emerged with shopkeepers selling multiple goods and services to offer their customers expanded choices conveniently in one place. The first “shopping malls” were born, such as the famed Pantheon Bazaar and Messrs Harding, Howell & Co. Merchants who specialized in selling the expensive materials and clothing items from Milan were referred to as “milianers” or “millianers”. The double-L derivation may have derived from a connection to the Latin mille (thousand) due to these department store forerunners selling massive quantities of products.

As the desire for fashionable hats for women grew in the following century, the need for quality supplies also grew. Specifically, the fine felt, silk fabrics, and woven straw hats from Milan were the most sought after. The increasing demand for lavish hats for rich society women led many of these “millianer” shop owners to narrowly focus the creative talents of their modistes/mantua makers and seamstresses. By the late 18th century, ladies hats were as important as any other article of clothing, if not more so, and a dedicated feminine hat maker (who could be a man or a woman) was solidly established as a singular profession with the title “milliner” firmly bestowed. However, that does not mean a millinery shop ONLY made hats (some continued to design and sew gowns, coats, undergarments, etc.) or sold no other merchandise. As the two advertisements from 1757 below show, the list of items sold by a milliner were extensive. 

As a last bit of fun on this section, the 1787 drawing below is by “SF Fores” and was published by Henry Kingbury. Clearly hats are the biggest draw (pun intended) in this shop but we see bustles, muffs, ribbons and lace too. This undoubtedly exaggerated drawing is still a terrific example of the massive, wildly decorated hats worn by the women in contrast to the plain hat worn by the man (King George III).

A little more searching on this drawing led me to Mike Rendell, The Georgian Gentlemen, who supplies a portion of the teeny text underneath AND the origin of the caricature. I shall direct you to his fabulous blog via this link:  His Royal Miserliness – A Milliner’s Shop

A quote given in the comments is from the British Museum website regarding this drawing. Here it is, in part:

“A long counter extends across the greater part of the design. The Queen is seated buying tape, which she holds appraisingly, looking with a satisfied smile to one of the Princesses . . . one turning her head to look at a device for extending a skirt which she is trying on. The back wall is lined with boxes, &c. Above these are hung specimens of the fashionable petticoat inflators, a hat, &c. In the foreground a little girl holds an enormous muff; a dog, partly shaved in the French manner, barks at a cat which stands on a band-box with its back arched. In the back parlour of the shop (left) two women sit at a table sewing; a man sits between them threading a needle.”

Wasn’t that fascinating? And I barely scratched the surface! Below are three of many references. Google searching yields a ton of information on the history of headwear and millinery. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

The Millinery Shop at Colonial Williamsburg
History of Hats For Women
History of Millinery



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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[…] the theme of my blog on hat making – Millinery: A History of Headwear and the Profession – today I shall talk about the various styles of headwear worn by women during the Regency. […]

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