Friday, April 22, 2016

From Hats to Homes

By Matthew Shoen

Hats have been a key element of fashion for most of recorded history. A hat can be a signature statement of who you are, and what you represent. They're a space for branding or individuality. We even have hats that hold beer.

Historically, hats have been popular and individuals who made hats, called milliners, have been important figures in the fashion world. In the 1910s, milliners and millinery reached an apex, with hat manufacturing becoming an increasingly important seasonal trade, particularly for women and teenage girls looking for supplemental income. In Buffalo, several different milliners occupied a large chunk of downtown in the vicinity of Lafayette Square. From their buildings these milliners manufactured and sold hats throughout the city. One of these wholesale millineries was owned by the Sinclair and Rooney Company and is currently in the process of being rehabilitated into a mixed use apartment building. With that in mind, I decided to look back on the history of hat fashion to examine some of the interesting styles that dominated hats in the early twentieth century.

Before proceeding I first must acknowledge that this will be a look into the history of women's hats. Male hat fashion is relatively boring with bowler hats and other simple designs being the most prominent choices for men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Male hat fashion was much more restrained and resistant to seasonal fluctuations, fitting more with the male ethos of the time. The hat was a head covering, not an expressive display, therefore its design was marked by simplicity bordering on austerity.

Because of the stability of hat fashion for men, the millinery industry and the milliners at Sinclair and Rooney did not make their fortune off the male hat trade. A man might only buy a few hats in his lifetime. Instead, it was with women and ladies headwear that milliners dedicated their efforts year in and year out, trying to predict the seasonal trends that would dominate the trade in a given year.

Some Ladies fashion taken from
Unlike mens hats, the hats designed for women were always in stylistic flux. Hats came in and went out of style sometimes as fast as within six months. One spring the style could feature lacy veils and lots of ribbon tied up in bows around the hat's brim. Other years could offer up massive wide-brimmed hats strewn with flowers and feathers. Some hats needed pins to hold them in place and others were set off at seemingly impossible angles to give off a flirtatious look. Hat materials were also constantly changing. Felt, straw, and lace all had their years of prominence. Perhaps the most interesting phase of millinery in Buffalo and the United States came around 1910 when it became chic to decorate hats with dead birds. Stuffed owls, grouse, and songbirds were set among nests of imitation fruit and lace in bizarre but interesting designs. If the milliner didn't make use of the whole bird he or she would no doubt use the wings or feathers to give color and size to the hat they were working on. Ostrich feathers were popular for this purpose to the point that an entire ostrich feather trade cropped up and became big business around 1910.

Unlike the stable male hat industry, high style women's hat fashion was mean to be expressive and flamboyant, drawing attention to the wearer in the anthesis of austere men's fashion. There was a sense of art to these hats, a beauty reflective of the sadly ornamental role women played in their world. Still, though we can lament the ethics of the 1910s, we cannot deny that those ethics helped create some fascinating and beautiful hats.

The millinery industry was always conscious of the fluctuations in ladies fashion and milliners often went out of business by misjudging a season's hot item. Putting too much money into ostrich feathers and lace when stuffed cardinals and elderberries were in season could be disastrous, and the unpredictability of ladies headwear caught up to Sinclair and Rooney in 1927 when the company went bankrupt. Still, for almost twenty years the company ran its business out of 465 Washington Street where the Sinclair Apartments are set to open sometime this spring . The millinery's handiwork can no doubt be seen in classic photos of Buffalo's past and in the basements of some of this city's older residents, reflecting an interesting period of both fashion and culture in Buffalo.

Bird hat from

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