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Hats On And Dressed To The Nines: How I Became A Milliner | Black Gay Blog
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Hats On and Dressed to the Nines: How I Became a Milliner

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Passport and Customs check at Southampton, 1954.
Passport and Customs check at Southampton, 1954.

I was almost one year old in August 1959 when my mother and I sailed from St. Vincent to Italy on an Italian ship named ‘Lutania’. We then went to France and Dover and finally took a train to London Victoria, to meet dad. Mum was elegantly dressed to the nines, wearing a Christian Dior inspired skirt by a Vincentian dressmaker. She matched it with a blouse, a cardigan, and a pink hat.

Undoubtedly, my mother was the most immaculately dressed passenger on this historical journey to help fill Britain’s post-war labour shortage. She had brought me with her to begin a new life away from home. All the men wore double or single-breasted jackets with sharp, pressed trousers, two-tone brogues, slim leather belts, flamboyant neckties and fedora hats, some suavely tilted to one side.

Hats & White Gloves from The Windrush Collection © Designs, BespokeDiva

The women adorned dresses with full or pencilled skirts, fitted jackets, gloves, dipped pearl jewellery and eye-catching hats. Although it was summer, they carried coats, pullovers, cardigans, warm socks and scarves. Whether hand made by dressmakers, tailors or imported, their eclectic style evoked an impressionable presence in the UK. Which unintentionally challenged the status quo, pending the adversities in stores on our arrival.

Besides the prominent racial abuse, small Island taunts and extreme challenges, there were occasional joyous moments. One, in particular, was a wedding around 1961. My father bought a pink dress flocked with velvet roses for my mother. I wore a Prince of Wales checked suit, a white shirt and a dinky bow tie for the special occasion. Father wore a black tuxedo suit with a satin lapel and a starched, white shirt. The English people must have wondered who we thought we were looking so smart.

Stylishly dressed in fashionable trends, the ladies danced, twisted and spun like carousels in a fairground. The men wore lightweight suits with trousers creases, sharp enough to cut the wedding cake. There was full circle, dainty dresses, which demanded space on the dance floor. We danced to Chubby Checkers’ popular song: ‘Let’s twist again like we did last summer.’ And I, mesmerised, as this was our first wedding, danced as if there was no tomorrow.

But tomorrow came slowly, along with the snow, sleet and fog. So, we moved to a bigger house. My sister Kenlyn and brother Treldon joined us from St. Vincent in 1964. Seven years later and our brother Jason was born. It was 1971.

Hats by Alva Wilson.

I remember an old Singer sewing machine, fabrics and dressmaking patterns in a spare room where our mother made dresses for herself and others. She knew how to knit and crochet and went to evening classes to learn to do embroidery. Our father adapted his skills, too. He renovated houses and made bits and bobs, including picture frames. I was inspired by his energy and motivation, although he thought otherwise. To his dismay, I had this passion for fashion, made dolly clothes, and drew pictures of one-legged one-eyed ‘fashion models’ on my school exercise books.

Eventually, Dad reluctantly agreed for me to attend Hornsey College of Art. I then studied fashion and textiles at Middlesex University. Unfortunately, graduating from Middlesex University in the middle of a recession was difficult. Facing similar discriminatory setbacks, like my parents, I struggled to find work as a fashion designer and wondered whether I had chosen the right profession. However, I found employment as a part-time pattern cutter eventually.

Dissatisfied with a sense of Deja vu, I decided to design clothes for ‘Silk and Things’, a shop in Stoke Newington where I slowly grew a clientele. Then, inevitably, I became more confident, fulfilling my dream against all odds.

In 1982, there was a black designer showcase at The Royal Albert Hall. I showed a capsule collection with other designers needing recognition. Loose Ends, the popular UK R&B act at the time, performed to a packed house on the verge of their global success. But apart from them, nothing major developed from this event. That’s when my friend Sonia Brown suggested I become a milliner. Well, I had always loved hats, so I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t thought of it myself.

Windwrush by Alva Wilson

While running to catch a bus, I broke my foot and was homebound for weeks around the same time. Bored and bothered, I decided to learn millinery through experimentation, deliberately side-stepping the norm to establish my own style. When I had recovered my strength, I rented a stall at Camden Town Market. Eventually, I sold my first collection to ‘The Hat Shop’ in London’s prestigious Convent Garden. After that, shops from abroad started calling in to buy my wears.

‘The Hat Gallery,’ opened in 1998 at Broadway Market. It became a creative hub for artists, and designers alike, who regularly exhibited in the shop. In partnership with the Hackney Council regeneration scheme, The Hat Gallery helped revive the street into the oasis it has become today. However, I soon found that I needed a sense of balance between managing a shop and working within the community. So, I jumped at an opportunity to work with the Claudia Jones organisation during the Hats off to Hackney festival.

Women from all parts of the Caribbean who previously worked as machinists or nurses were within the group. Talented beyond belief, they quickly learned how to design hats, which won the first prize for the Hats off to Hackney competition. Afterwards, they made hats to wear at Royal Ascot, which we visited twice. And one of the highlights of the workshop was being part of the Black Style exhibition at the V&A museum, assisting me with the hat-making workshops during the event. After working with them for several years, their energy, resilience and narratives still inspire me up to this day and will hopefully continue to do so.

Did you follow your dreams against all odds? Tell me about it in the comments below.

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