Race Day Hats
1987 - 1992
"The gilt on the gingerbread, the icing on the cake." The opening words of the theme song for the 1980s’ New Zealand television series Gloss summed up perfectly the role of hats in the latter part of the decade. Extravagant in every sense of the word, they provided the finishing touch for the equally extravagant clothes with which they were matched. And what better place to show off haute hats than the races?
The Fashions in the Field contests, in which women paraded before the judges in their finery, were held at race-meetings throughout the country, with the major events taking place at Riccarton and Addington (Christchurch), Trentham (Wellington) and Ellerslie in Auckland.
Although hats were just one element of the overall image, Di Goldsworthy, whose involvement with Fashions in the Field at Ellerslie, first as a compere and then as a judge, spans several decades, says there was always a 'Best Hat' category. She credits the contests with inspiring women to wear hats. "Many women admitted they had never owned a hat before going to the races."
Prizes included cars, cruises and overseas travel so, not surprisingly, competition was keen. "The main event at Ellerslie was always held on Boxing Day", says Di. "One year, the number of entrants swelled to over 200."
Peter Nola (Peppertree Fashions), Isabel Harris (Thornton Hall), Mike Saunders (Society Fashions), designer Gaye Bartlett and Fashion Quarterly editor Paula Ryan were among the fashion insiders who judged the contests over the years. Much sought-after for her judging talents and fashion expertise, Paula herself invariably wore a spectacular hat on the day, made specifically for the occasion, usually by Christchurch milliner Ailie Miller (Dollie Vardin) whose show-stopping creations appeared regularly in the magazine.
Fashion Quarterly also featured Fashions in the Field in its social pages. Fantastically hatted women were pictured strutting their stuff or sipping champagne in one of the hospitality marquees. Much to the delight of the Fashion Quarterly team, hats shot for fashion editorials often showed up later in the race-day coverage photos.
Bounteous brims were characteristic of the time. Big-brimmed versions of the classic Breton jockeyed for position with platter-flat hats with low crowns, enormous circular hats that framed the face like a halo and hats whose brims, turned-up at the front and dipping low at the back, gave them the appearance of over-sized sou’westers.
Flowers, particularly roses, were a popular embellishment, appearing singly or in clusters. Bouquet hats, composed entirely of flowers, provided another variation on the floral theme.
Brimless hats, worn at a tilt, were also hot favourites. Typically, these comprised a head-hugging cap with intricacies of fabric folded, twisted or sculpted into architectural shapes high on one side, creating a look of elegant elongation.
The complexity of the designs relied on the skill of couture milliners. Amanda Nicholle, whom many women consulted when they wanted to turn heads at the Wellington Cup, trained for a year in London with the late Philip Somerville, milliner by appointment to Queen Elizabeth II and Diana, Princess of Wales. "What makes a hat special are the ribbons, edgings, flowers and bows," she said in 1988. "Hats are meant to be frivolous and fun."
Also in demand for race-day hats were mother and daughter Aucklanders Lorna and Christine Snow. Lorna, a retired ex-milliner who served her apprenticeship in the 1940s, returned to hat-making in 1985, setting up Pagon Millinery in Remuera in partnership with Christine.
The imposing hats worn by Ilona Rogers for her role as Maxine, the bitchy magazine editor in Gloss, were created by Pagon Millinery. Citing Ilona/Maxine as the perfect example of how hats gave a woman presence and a sense of power, Lorna is quoted as saying: "When Ilona puts on one of those big statement hats, her head goes higher and she commands attention in a way she could never do with a bare head."
Ailie Miller’s hats, like her whole approach to design, were audacious, witty and chic. Her name, or rather that of her label Dollie Vardin, was synonymous with Fashions in the Field up and down the country. Ailie used vintage trims sourced from second-hand shops, old millinery workrooms and retired milliners, to bring to life the creations of her vivid imagination. In her summer 1988 collection she showed softly sweeping crinoline straws, laden with delicate flowers, lace, ribbons or gentle bows, and bold asymmetrical shapes in bright colours.
When having a designer race-day outfit made, a matching hat was often part of the package. "Kevin Berkahn made huge, colourful, fabulous hats", recalls Di Goldsworthy, "and Patrick Steel also designed millinery to go with race-wear."
Hats worn by Fashion in the Field entrants today are much simpler. Vying with tip-tilted saucer hats In the popularity stakes, are next-to-nothing confections called 'fascinators', known in their 1950s’ incarnation as 'whimsies'. The bravura hats of the 1980s were of their time. If you had it, you flaunted it, and race-day hats were no exception.
Text by Cecilie Geary. Banner image Amanda Nicholle cartwheel hat for Patrick Steel Couture, 1989.
Last published November 2017.