I will state up front that I am not setting myself up as an expert and that I am far from perfect in my own habits and choices. I often consider the ethical side of my making, but I do not always act on it in what I feel is the best way, and I think of myself as still exploring what ethical millinery means to me. This post is a way of sharing some of my current thoughts as I undertake that exploration.
Hats and Ethical Fashion: Made For Each Other
Firstly, I think that there are some qualities of hats that make them inherently inclined towards having an ethical place in our wardrobe.
1. You can wear a hat for life
Once you are an adult, your head size remains more or less the same. Thus, a hat can be a lifetime fashion investment, reducing wasted buys. This also means that buying a really high quality handmade hat is a more manageable expense - you won't have to do it too often.
2. Hats can almost always be mended, re-shaped, re-trimmed or salvaged for parts
Whether you do this yourself or get a milliner to do it, there is an AWFUL lot that can be done with an old hat. Although the idea of making changes to a vintage hat might be sacrilegious to you, many can be re-blocked to their original shape and cleaned up to give them a longer lasting life, seriously repaired, or have the size changed a small amount without any damage to them.
A more modern hat you may have fewer qualms about, and then all sorts of things can be done. Felts and straws, in particular, can be reworked in minor or major ways pretty much ad infinitum. And they should be, in my opinion. A hat should never have to be binned. When it comes to embracing "make do and mend" hats are the ideal candidate, and if you want to do this yourself, many of the old millinery texts available (second hand, reprinted or scanned online) have sections on these arts. If this is beyond your interest, most milliners would be thrilled to be a part of a project to keep an old hat alive and kicking.
A number of times I have spoken to people who have been clearing the estates of loved ones, and although they are giving away or selling some vintage hats, they have told me that they threw some out that they thought were beyond rescue. Now there may be some cases where this is true, but I think they are far fewer than these people think. Please at least try to find someone who wants to save them, or parts of them. (I can assure you that I will always lovingly accept such donations!)
3. A large proportion of hats are handmade
Although there are plenty of cheap mass-manufactured hats out there, they don't outnumber the handmade creations by the same vast majority that exists with clothing. Buying hats that are made by small local industry can therefore be easier for hats than for clothes. Even the hats you buy from department stores (at least here in Australia) are often made by Australian milliners, and there are many individuals and old traditional manufacturers still in operation.
Making Ethical Choices
There are also a number of things you can actively choose to do, to keep your hat adventures nice to people and the planet.
1. Buy vintage or handmade
As with clothes, it is clear that buying vintage or second hand removes our supply chain worries and promotes the mindset in ourselves and in society that these items are not to be thrown away.
As mentioned above, milliners and hat makers are around and not hard to find. Their work is diverse and impressive, and you are bound to be able to find the styles you are looking for, or have hats custom made.
2. Buy to suit your lifestyle, taste and wardrobe
For everyday hats, think about the clothes you actually own and wear, and the activities you do. Think in winter about something warm and practical, and in summer something that will shield your face and eyes. But think beyond caps and beanies, and use hats as a way to add practical elegance to your wardrobe. Unless you have a very coordinated wardrobe or a strong signature colour, picking the most versatile hat colour can be hard, but for winter you can match it to your favourite coat (or gloves or scarf) to make sure it will get wear, and in summer natural straw is a neutral that goes with everything.
For occasion hats, you may not wear them too often, but make sure you will at least get to wear them once! Don't just randomly buy a pretty hat, select one or have a hat custom-made that matches a dress you can wear for evenings out to dinner or the theatre, or to weddings and other special events.
3. Select ethical materials
When buying new, consider where the material has come from. I'm not going to go into the issues with fur and leather, because, frankly, thinking about it makes me sick. But be aware that many felt hats are made of fur felt, and consider whether that is something you want to get behind. I still find feathers a tricky choice to navigate, but personally I am moving away from them.
I want to research the manufacture of other millinery materials further, but in general it is easier, if not necessarily the actual case, for plant-based materials like straw and sinamay, as well as wool and fabrics to be sourced in an ethical way. Consider looking for milliners who are working with reclaimed or recycled materials as well.
4. Look after your hats
Store them carefully, keep them clean and in shape. There are many ways to do this, and your choices will depend on how often you wear them and the space you have. Find a way that suits your lifestyle, and take into account protection from sunlight, insects, dust and physical damage.
And wear them. I'm pretty sure hats need love too :)
5 At the end, give your hat another life
Although a hat might fit for life, it won't necessarily suit your tastes and lifestyle for life.
Vintage hats can be resold, donated or given to friends. Hats can be reworked to suit your current needs better (as mentioned above). Hats can be donated to friendly milliners who like to recycle, or your local charity shop.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one! Do you find that you keep hats longer than clothes? Have you tried your hand at mending or re-working a hat?