The Finishing Touch
BY Bill Walsh
Almost all of us from time to time feel a kinship with another age believing that we were born too late that we are really more attuned to another place another time. But few of us are hit with this esoteric sensation quite so often quite so strongly or quite so mundanely as milliner Jan Wutkowski who faces it on a daily basis when she unlocks the door at work.
In terms of her professional life how much better to have been around in the 20s 30s or 40s Wutkowski ponders. Professionally the worst time to be growing up certainly was the 1960s which is exactly when she was coming of age. “That’s when hats died ” she says “other than in pockets of African-American women Jewish women and the horse-racing crowd. Hair was more important. I grew up in the 60s and you wore what you wanted to wear not what your mother or grandmother wore — the hats and the gloves and the shoes and the matching bag.”
All is not lost. Princess Diana gave milliners who make sell or trim women’s hats a huge boost that appears to have stamina and even today “it is amazing how many young celebrities are now wearing hats ” Wutkowski says. “A lot of the women are wearing more men-inspired hats but at least they are wearing them.”
Wutkowski has recently returned from a trip to Australia where she learned her craft in the mid-1990s and where she was one of two American milliners invited to teach at the prestigious International Millinery Forum where she offered a class in flat-felt skirting. After a few days spent recovering from the arduous traipse halfway across the globe Wutkowski opened aMUSE her millinery shop near the corner of Wrightsville and Kerr avenues in Wilmington which specializes in custom-made women’s hats but also offers a small quality selection of jewelry and handbags.
This is Wutkowski’s first shop though she has had a retail presence on the Web since 1998. Being able to meet her customers face-to-face will be a new and welcome experience. “Up until now is I never met the people I was making hats for ” she said. “The process of making them a hat has actually been quite long — six to eight weeks. Many e-mails go back and forth there are many conversations on the phone. We send pictures we send swatches back and forth. The whole point ” she says “is to make them what they want whether that was something to go with a specific outfit or to go with a number of them.”
Wilmington is not as much of a hat town as say Charleston Wutkowski says but there are sufficient opportunities including the Azalea Festival with its trendy garden party and Easter both just over the horizon and a full calendar of social events and weddings. Weddings supply some 90 percent of her business including hats and veils — exclusive kinds of veils the kind brides are unlikely to find on the bridal shop rack. “I’m looking for brides who want something different something unique ” she says.
It’s not all fancy though and Wutkowski would like to build on the casual opportunities too. “Wilmington is not as much of a hat town as I’d like it to be ” she says of the city she has called home since selling nearly all the Memphis Tenn. trappings of domesticity and coming here to live aboard a 40-foot sailboat in 1994. “But because we are a beach town I think people need to wear hats not only to flatter themselves and feel good about themselves but also for sun protection. I will have some of the more casual things available. I am trying to run the full gamut here and while most of the work will be custom I’m trying to have some beach hats. And I’m hoping my travel hat will be popular. It packs absolutely flat almost like the old top hats did. If it gets crinkled you can fix it with an iron when you get to where you’re going.”
As the dust settles on the shop’s opening Wutkowski intends to address Wilmington’s relative hatlessness by offering opportunities “for women to come in and just play with hats a little bit to get them used to wearing hats if they’re not already ” she says. “I will have some simple hat forms and women will be able to come in and sort of do their own hat in a way with the different embellishments — ribbons and flowers and feathers and beads. I think that will be a good way to get some folks in and used to wearing hats and feeling comfortable with them.”
And while you’re here she hopes to teach you how to wear a hat properly.
“One of the things that I hear from a lot of women is oh I don’t look good in a hat. Many times it is not so much the hat — though sometimes it is — as it is that they are wearing it improperly. With few exceptions a woman should wear her hat forward on her head and cocked off to the side a little bit.”
You are only allowed to wear a hat on the back of your head if you are under 12 on the stage or a bride Wutkowski says and the last only because people want to see the bride’s face.
Sometimes of course women don’t look good because it is the fault of the hat. Stylistically petite women should avoid wide-brimmed hats that overwhelm them Wutkowski counsels. Women of larger stature can get away with larger hats but it is all a matter of proportion she notes and an assessment of the complete picture. “What are you wearing? What is your hair going to be like? What kind of jewelry are you wearing? But normally a smaller woman does not need to have a hat any wider than her shoulders and a larger-boned woman does not need to have a little tiny hat perched on top of her head ” she says. “Proportion. It is about the whole look.”
Personally she favors small cocktail hats Wutkowski says and because felt is her favorite medium in which to work loves making cloches such as those that were so popular in the 20s 30s and into the 40s — the golden age of hats. “Most women feel for some reason more comfortable with a big-brim hat ” she muses. “I don’t know if they think it is the most flattering or whether it’s a way to hide under a brim.”
There are still women who Wutkowski says “want to have a hat for every outfit every occasion.” Bless their hearts they understand: You can’t be too rich you’d have to work at it to be too thin and it’s nigh impossible to have too many hats.
What’s Your Hatitude?
To find the right hat it is essential that you understand the basics. Try on lots of styles of hats to see what looks good with your stature hair and outfit. Most people who say they don’t look good in hats have never had someone show them what looks good on them and have never tried on different styles. Take a trusted friend to try on hats. Go for the ‘whole look or style’ when shopping for a special occasion hat. Here are some guide lines:
Heart face shape
• No point crowns
• Wear brims straight across the brow line
• No crowns narrower than cheekbones
Narrow face shape
• Mushroom brim is good
• No tall crown or brimless hats unless embellishments are added around the temple area of the face
Oval face shape
• Anything goes
Round face shape
• Crown wider than the face
• No round crowns; squared or asymmetrical shapes are good
• No short rolled brims
• Angular lines are good for brims or embellishments
• Pillboxes (larger) are good worn forward and tilted
Square face shape
• Wear hats tilted or slanted
• Asymmetrical brim shapes are good
• Round crowns are good; avoid square crowns
• No short brims or brimless hats
• Asymmetrical shapes
• Turned up brims are good
• No brimless hats
• No embellishments front and center
• Wide soft crowns are good
• Angular lines in the hat shape or embellishments are good
• Medium-width brim is good
• Rearrange your hair to see how that changes the way a hat looks on your head
• Wear earrings and lipstick
• With very few exceptions most people look best wearing their hat forward on their head and slightly tilted (see above for exceptions)
• Check all angles. The hat must look good from the front back and sides
• A custom milliner can help determine the best shape color style and embellishment for your hat. A properly fitted hat made to your head size makes all the difference in the world as to how you feel wearing the hat. A hat should make you feel good about yourself
• Personality cannot be ignored when choosing a hat
• Remember there are always exceptions to these guidelines — Jan Wutkowski