Saturday, September 10, 2011

Milliner Extraordinaire

Gretchen at the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island
this August.  Photo taken by Jane Kratochvil.

Gretchen Fenston, milliner extraordinaire, graciously agreed to an interview with Bien Vestido. Gretchen wrote the essay "Blythe Spirits: Cocktails and Hats" in the Cocktail Culture book I wrote about recently. Gretchen is an archivist at Conde Nast and as a professional milliner she has won three milliner of the year "Milli" awards from the Headwear Information Bureau. As a regular at New York's Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, Gretchen and her hats have been photographed many times by The New York Times on the Street photographer, Bill Cunningham and by The Satorialist, Scott Schuman.

BV: What was the first hat that made an impression on you, who wore it and why was it so memorable?
Gretchen: Hats in the movies always made a huge impression on me. My mother took me to see "My Fair Lady" in a movie theatre when I was about four years old. The scenes at Ascot were just burned into my brain from then on. The women all in black and white formal day wear, with huge hats, each one different and more elaborate than the next. They were so magnificent and other-worldly to me. I was fascinated wondering if there were people somewhere in the real world that might dress with such art and elegance.

BV: Did this memory start your love affair with hats?
Gretchen: I always loved to wear hats as a child because my mother always wore hats and I loved to play dress up but I think "My Fair Lady" really amplified this love (as it probably has for every milliner/hat lover who has ever seen this movie.) The Ascot scene is undoubtedly why I have always a strong attachment to black and white color schemes!
Gretchen wearing her elegant black and white inspiration
from "My Fair Lady" at the Jazz Age Lawn Party this August.  Photographed by
Steven Rosen. 
BV: What would you say to someone who was self-conscious about wearing a hat but wants to? 
Gretchen: Start slowly and practice. Try something classic at first, a beret in a flattering neutral color, for example, wear it a lot until you are comfortable in it and people you know are comfortable seeing you with something on your head everyday. Then use occasions (weddings, parties) to experiment with looks that are a little different.  The compliments you get will help build your hat wearing confidence.

BV: What hat do you lust after and don't own, 
but would like to? 
Gretchen: There are a lot of hats I have dreamed up but haven’t had the chance to make yet. As long as I was on the subject of movies, though, in the world of cinema fantasy, I would love the hat that Garbo wore in "Ninotchka" when her character finally starts to let go of her stern, serious ways. I love what it symbolizes. It is seen by her at first as a ‘silly’ hat- her first hat that isn’t worn for a functional reason. Then it comes to represent her letting go of her rigid past and learning to enjoy life. To me that makes this ‘silly’ hat both important and functional. I like to make hats with this idea in mind- the kind of hat that makes people smile when they see it fulfills an important function.
Greta Garbo wearing life-affirming hat with
Melvyn Douglas in "Ninotchka". 

BV: Who do you think in popular culture today wears hats well? 
Gretchen: Since hats have long been required for female members of the British Royal family for public occasions, they wear hats fairly well, tending to be less self-conscious about hat wearing than the general public. However, the idea that wearing a hat is a requirement, perhaps takes a little of the joy out of the experience for them. In contrast, women who have lived with the long tradition of hat wearing for church, for example in African American protestant churches, where hats are worn, not because they must be- but because they are an expression of joy and celebration, these women truly know 
the art of wearing hats with aplomb. 

BV: What's the upcoming trend in hats? 
Gretchen: I think the media focus on the recent royal wedding(s) has accustomed people to seeing fashionable hats and made them eager to see more. Therefore I believe we will be seeing more hats in general and in more unusual 
and fashionable styles.
BV: Who in the world, present or past, would you like to have a cocktail with and what would you wear?
Gretchen: Dorothy Parker or Hedda Hopper or Lily Dach√©. What to wear?- don’t get me started! 
For DP, something witty
For HH, something with pizzazz
For LD, something saucy
BV: What's your favorite cocktail?

Gretchen: Manhattan, up
BV: I'd like to be at that cocktail party too! Gretchen, many thanks for sharing your talent and time with Bien Vestido and for reminding us the importance of style to make us smile. 


  1. Oh, I do remember Garbo's stovepipe hat. But only a Garbo could get away with something as silly as that hat. Lovely interview, Lesa.; you are becoming very brave, and your blog shines because of it.

  2. Wonderful interview! I'm seeing hats in a whole new way. Keep them coming, Lesa!

  3. I agree -- terrific interview.
    Manhattan up -- once upon a time my drink of choice as well.