This month’s blog post for the amazing Crystal Parade is one that I have been so excited to do as I shall be interviewing a milliner who is responsible for my passion for hats and the drama that they create.
At the young age of 13 a film about one of the world’s most famous ships and ocean liner disasters came out and it did not disappoint. Titanic is one of those film that has it all. Nominated for 14 Academy Awards and grossing over two billion dollars we all fell in love with it.
I remember picking my sisters up with my mother and father after they had seen it at the cinema and I was terrified of seeing the film as people were leaving it in tears. My sisters were pink in the face and they had clearly been crying. I told them I didn’t want to know what was going on because I would watch it, I believe, that weekend with my friends, chaperoned by my mother.
The story of the Titanic has always fascinated me and I remember the first time I was introduced to it. A friend of mine at school, Brendan Le Page, was reading a National Geographic and the front cover had an artist’s impression of what the ship would look like underwater, lying on the ocean bed. The picture was stark, laid there cold and haunting, the article was a sad reality but a story that was so captivating.
I was, in all honesty, obsessed with it. The whole disaster, in my opinion, is one of the world’s most important ethical lessons.
Sat in my seat next to my Mum and my friends the film began and I truly do get absorbed quickly into films so I was captivated straight away.
At the age of 11 when I realised that I would, one day, love to have my own label - Julian Garner. I was excited and now 13, my imagination was tantalised by the beautiful costumes.
Then that scene happened. It slapped me in the face so hard because of the drama it created. This beautiful car pulls up and it is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the crowds. The chauffeur opens the door and we see this elegant glove emerge from the door frame and it is followed by the first glimpse of the actress’s costume. It is elegant. Then the tip of the hat emerges and already you want to see more.
The camera pans down and WHAM this exquisite bow, in the most perfect fabric, sat upon this wide brim, which sweeps up in the most gentle and elegant flow and another slap in the face, Rose is introduced to the audience completely framed perfectly. I still get goosebumps when I watch it.
Then come more views of the hat and you see that the bow doesn’t just have one fold but three and the hat is just as beautiful from the back. As Rose turns she says, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about?”
These few seconds changed a 13-year-old boy’s life. I was riddled with goosebumps. From then on, I understood how to create drama by simply using fashion. There have been many moments, yes, but this one, still my favourite.
I didn’t know who made the hat, I didn’t even know what a milliner was. I remember my families’ friends having antique hat blocks as door stoppers in their homes in the middle of the African bush in Zimbabwe. The milliner who made that hat didn’t know that she had created something that had such a profound effect on a young boy.
Then September 2019 whilst chatting with another talented milliner, Dean Burke Hats, he told me who made it. I couldn’t believe it. Finally, I knew and I instantly followed the creative genius that is Josephine Willis on Instagram, @jowillis37, check her feed out, you will not be disappointed by the amazing hats and famous faces underneath them.
It is truly an incredible honour for me to be interviewing someone who inspired me long before the “greats” of millinery did.
Jo, thank you so much for allowing me to do so. I am truly grateful and I am sure the readers of the monthly blog post by Crystal Parade will be too.
JGH - Please tell the readers about yourself and where your passion for hats started? Is there a hat that sparked your passion?
JW – Thank you for the wonderful introduction Chris.
I always loved history and read a lot of 19th century fiction in my teenage years and grew up watching films like ‘My Fair Lady’ or television serials such as ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ and BBC dramatisations of the classics.
After my degree in The History of Drawing and Printmaking at Camberwell Art School, I went to Manchester University to train as a museum curator. I didn’t end up working in museums, although my studies taught me a lot about really looking at objects and references, and that has stood me in good stead ever since. I don’t exactly remember now when I realised I was more interested in making than curating, but I have a memory of spending a lot of time in the V&A costume collection sketching so that’s probably when I decided to go to the London College of Fashion to study Theatre Costume.
In my case, there wasn’t one hat in particular that inspired me, I just loved the way hats finished off an outfit and could give clues to a character’s personality and background.
JGH – I trained in 2014 at the London College of Fashion and I remember a student asking our tutor, if once we completed our intensive course in millinery, if it made us milliners. She said, “No, it takes five years before you can call yourself a milliner…,” There were some unhappy faces. When did you start millinery?
JW – Millinery for me also started at the London College of Fashion where I did a term of theatrical millinery with Lil Scott. On the first day, Lil showed us images of the hats she had made for the London costumiers, Cosprop, and I was completely bold over with her work on all the Merchant Ivory films, as well as ‘Out of Africa’ and ‘Tess’ to name but a few; these had been the films that had caught my imagination as a teenager.
JGH – Reflecting back on the above question in regards to the length of time it takes before you can call yourself a milliner, I remember the time where my tutors comment made sense to me. I felt it in the weight of my hats. Did you experience something similar where you thought, yip, I am a milliner now?
JW – I remember, not long after I had joined Cosprop I was making hats and bonnets for the Ang Lee film adaptation of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with the costumes designed by John Bright and Jenny Beavan. I made men’s and women’s hats, caps, bonnets from lace, felt, fabric, straw – it was intensely busy but a really happy experience and that’s the first time I must have thought, I can do this.
JGH - I have an idea of how this amazing opportunity came about, however, please can you tell the readers the day that you came in contact with the costume designer, Deborah Lynn-Scott, for the movie, Titanic?
JW – I met Deborah once, when she visited Cosprop and showed me her design of the purple hat; she explained how she had had it made elsewhere but it wasn’t right, as it wasn’t big enough, and asked if I would make it along with another, black, silk hat for Rose, that didn’t appear in the film. We chatted about when the hat appears in the film and the scale she wanted it to be and then I assembled all the materials I thought I would need – the biggest parasisal capeline I could find, plus a cone, metres of straw braid in case the brim needed to be made even bigger (which it did!) and some silk grosgrain and gave them to the amazing in-house dyer, Gill Usher, who dyed the whole lot purple. The beautiful ribbon was specially woven at The Whitchurch Silk Mill in Hampshire (well worth a visit) and added later in Hollywood.
JGH - This question is more than one so forgive me, because I am so intrigued to know what you did. When you watched that scene in Titanic, where the audience is introduced to the lead actress, Kate Winslet, playing the character Rose, emerge from the car where were you?
Did you shriek?
Were you in the middle of a packed cinema?
Did you stand up and shout, “I made that hat!”??
I honestly cannot even begin to imagine what you must have felt.
JW – Oh yes, that’s what I should have done! However, I was so amazed by the impact of the whole costume and the way Kate Winslet looked and moved, that it really only sunk in afterward. I don’t remember going to see the film with huge expectations as, so often, blink and it’s gone or the thing you’ve scratched your head over trying to get right doesn’t even appear!
JGH – A staggering amount of work goes into the making of a movie and as people are aware there is a team behind the scenes that do the work, well into the early hours of the next day. Were you lucky enough to be on the set during filming?
JW – No, sadly not. Lil Scott, my teacher from college, who became my colleague at Cosprop, and I were in London having great fun making lots of 1910s hats for the film. I think all the stock of 1910s hats had been hired for ‘Titanic’ so we were left to our own devices to make more and a few of our hats ended up on the heads of principles in the film, for example, Francis Fisher (Ruth Dewitt Bukater, Rose’s mother) wore a black and cream hat I made in one scene.
I’ve only been on two film sets - I took my son to see ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ being filmed at Leavesden Studios and visited the set of ‘The Duchess’ at the Bath Assembly Rooms; exciting experiences.
JGH – I was once involved in a film myself, acting in Drag. It’s a terrible film but a tick to the bucket list of things I have wanted to do. Appear in a bad movie – DONE. The money was good but a lot of the people didn’t even make it into the final cut. The anticipation is horrible. Were, you informed that the hat made it into the final cut, or was it a complete surprise?
JW – Wow, well done Chris! No, I had no idea until the Cosprop business manager was flicking through a film industry magazine before the Oscars and it had pictures of the nominees and there was a beautiful profile photo of Rose in the hat, so it was a complete surprise. I don’t assume anything I make will make it onto screen, that’s just how it is.
JGH – This is a million-dollar question as I am sure a lot of people would like to know, I know my Mum would be one of them. Where is that beautiful hat now?
JW – I wish I could tell you but I’ve absolutely no idea – Hollywood most likely.
JGH – WHAT!?!? I must begin my search for that beautiful hat! Deborah Lynn-Scott won an Oscar, AN OSCAR, for the costume design of Titanic. Her acceptance speech she thanks her crew. You are a part of that. Do you ever get a shiver when you think about it and have you been able to, at least, hold that Oscar?
JW – Alas no, I’ve never held an Oscar but it is nice to think that I am one of the team and if you wait a long, long, long time my name does appear in the credits – the one and only time that’s ever happened. Even today, if anyone asks what I do and I say I make hats for film and television and they ask if I’ve made any famous ones, everyone knows that one at least!
JGH – Your millinery career is pretty amazing and inspiring. How has the disastrous year of 2020 affected what you do and what are you doing to cope with the stresses involved?
JW – Apart from the obvious anxiety of looking on and seeing how people’s lives have been disastrously affected by Coronavirus, I have to say that it hasn’t had such a dramatic impact on my life. As well as millinery, I work as a teaching assistant in my children’s old junior school in Bath and although I had to shield vulnerable family members at the beginning of lockdown, once the school was organised for taking pupils in ‘bubbles’ and family were sorted, I worked at school. I did decide to use any spare time to keep practicing millinery techniques though and have been trying to learn new skills like how to make fabric flowers now that I have the right tools.
JGH – For any milliners reading this, what would be your number one piece of advice to them be as they tackle the hard industry of making hats?
JW – There is so much information available now, about techniques and materials on the internet, books etc. you can learn a lot on your own; buy inexpensive straw and felt hats from charity shops and experiment so you get a good understanding of how they behave; practice to build your confidence.
JGH – What do you LOVE about millinery?
JW – I love original straw braid, beautiful old fabric flowers and antique silk ribbon, even before they have been used to make a hat – I’m a bit of a hoarder of them.
JGH – What do you HATE about millinery?
JW – There isn’t anything I hate about millinery. I get frustrated about not having the right block sometimes but a bit of ingenuity often solves the problem.
JGH – I was asked a couple weeks back for a studio tip and I replied, always condition your thread. What would be your number one studio tip?
JW – Oh yes, that’s important; I always wear a thimble.
JGH – My last and final question. What would you change, if anything at all, about your millinery career and why?
JW – I wouldn’t change anything. Making theatrical hats satisfies me creatively and I find the historical references that I so often use, really fascinating.
JGH - Jo, thank you so, so, much for doing this interview and taking time out of your day to tell the readers of Crystal Parades blog all about your incredible journey and career in millinery.
Please have a look at Jo’s Instagram account and give her a follow.
Next month’s blog post I will be delving into the dark with macabre inspired Drag Artist - Miss Luna Lestrange – Have a sneaky peek a boo at her Instagram - @misslunalestrange – don’t worry, she doesn’t bite (insert evil laugh here).
I hope this month’s blog post has inspired you to follow your dreams and give thanks to those who have inspired you, remember, go as far as you can see and when you get there, you will see further.