By the 1930s, there were hundreds of milliners in New Zealand. "Hats were an everyday fashion item, like gloves and matching handbags," says Lindsay Kennett who started his own wholesale millinery business in Auckland in 1952, aged 24. "90 percent of women wore hats because that’s what etiquette decreed. People today don’t realise how enormous the hat trade was. Even the tiniest little town had its own hat shop. The main centres had several."
There were two places women went to buy their hats – millinery salons, with fancy names like Chapeaux Suzette, and department stores. The salons, run by individual milliners, carried a small selection of exclusive hats and also made to order. Hats in the major department stores were designed and made in the stores’ own millinery workrooms, imported from Paris or London or sourced from independent milliners or one of the many hat factories operating at the time. Ross & Glendining was one of the biggest," recalled Lindsay. "Others that come to mind are Warner Hats in Dunedin and Vogue Millinery, Gainsborough Millinery, MK Hats and Plummer Hats in Auckland." Plummer Hats had a licence to reproduce the ready-to-wear designs of Aage Thaarup, the Queen Mother’s milliner, who was based in London.
In department stores, vast areas were designated for the display and sale of model hats, which were treated with great reverence. "You didn’t just go marching in and try a hat on," says Lindsay. "An assistant would retrieve the hat of your choice from its stand or glass case and carefully place it on your head at the right angle."
A number of stores also had do-it-yourself Hat Bars, located well away from the posh millinery departments, where customers could choose a shape, fabric and trim and complete the hat at home. Lindsay bought his first wooden hat block from the Hat Bar at James Smith’s in Wellington.
It was while he was dressing the hat windows at Kirkcaldie & Stains in Wellington in 1950 that Lindsay Kennett decided to become a milliner. "The hat buyer, Miss O’Donnell , liked the experimental hats I made and asked me to do some for the store. They were small felts in bright colours. White felt hats were also hugely popular at this time. If hats weren’t selling and you put in a window of white felts, they’d sell out in no time."
In 1950s’ New Zealand, designing and making model hats for women wasn’t considered a masculine occupation. Lindsay says he could count the number of his male counterparts on one hand. "Independent milliners were mostly women and, in Auckland, a lot of them were émigrés from Central Europe. Hat factories employed men, but as machinists, not to do the finer work." One of Lindsay’s few male contemporaries, Philip Somerville, whose family owned a wholesale millinery business in Invercargill, moved to London in the 1960s where he eventually became a milliner to the Queen. He designed hats for Princess Diana, and the Duchess of Cambridge is now a client.
For almost 40 years, Lindsay Kennett was one of the main wholesalers of model hats to major department stores around the country and he also supplied fashion stores in smaller towns. In his Auckland workroom, sometimes with help but usually single-handedly, he produced two seasonal collections per store per year. Every design was different. Part of the deal with some of the bigger stores, such as Beath’s in Christchurch and C. Smith’s (later Farmers) in Wellington, was that Lindsay front up in person and present each new collection to the public. He did this for 16 years, until the demand for hats declined, travelling with his hat blocks and often ending up putting the finishing touches to his creations in his hotel room.
In 1962, Lindsay opened a millinery salon in affluent Parnell, which he operated in tandem with his wholesale business. After five years, he shut up shop. "Making bespoke hats for women of means was an enjoyable experience," he says. But my workload became unmanageable. The salon had to go."
As was the custom in fashion then, milliners followed overseas trends, taking their cue from magazines like British Millinery and Chapeaux, a French publication. The British Colour Council released colour forecasts ahead of season and this enabled Lindsay, and other milliners who supplied department stores, to anticipate which colours were the most likely to be promoted. Ming blue, one season, fiesta pink, off-white or burnt orange, the next.
The hat trade had a vocabulary of its own. Crinoline straw. Hatter’s plush. Peachbloom. Melusine (a long-haired felt). Beaver (a felt with a teddy bear-like texture). These and other materials used in hat manufacture and decoration were imported mainly from France, Italy, Switzerland and the UK by large companies such as Ross & Glendining and Abbot, Armstrong & Howie, and also by smaller importers. When fur hats became fashionable, at the end of the 1960s, local furriers provided Lindsay Kennett with the mink, silver fox and Persian lamb he needed for his berets, pillboxes and toques.
The hat’s slow demise began in the 1960s with the deformalisation of dress, the growing influence of young fashion designers and the advent of 'big' hair. As hat sales decreased, department store millinery departments became smaller and smaller, disappearing altogether in the 1990s. Hat shops and hat factories closed down. The New Zealand hat trade, which had provided a livelihood for so many people for so many years, was reduced to just a few independent milliners.
"There were still some stalwart hat wearers," recalls Lindsay Kennett. "Fortunately for me, they were catered for by department stores such as Smith & Caughey’s, Ballantynes and Kirkcaldie & Stains, establishments with whom I had enjoyed a long association. Although they stocked only a small selection of hats, I received enough orders to keep my business going."
In the early 1990s, Lindsay Kennett retired to Dunedin where he continued to make hats, reproductions of styles from earlier eras, for exhibitions and charity hat shows within the southern region.
Lindsay Kennett passed away in 2016. His family donated a large collection of his southern exhibition hats to the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum. Examples of his earlier work can be found in the New Zealand Fashion Museum online collection.
Text by Cecilie Geary.
Last published April 2014.