Saturday, April 14, 2007


If ladylike milliner Lilly Dache were alive today, would she be hanging with Diddy and Jay-Z?

Mrs. Dache — way back in the 1930s — understood the value of branding herself, much like modern hip-hop stars. An exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum at FIT shows off not only Mrs. Dache’s hats but also how she adapted her business to suit the fickle fashion world.

The Frenchwoman arrived in the United States in 1924 and opened her first hat shop that same year. Within a decade, she was a favorite of Hollywood stars and New York socialites. A 1934 photo in the exhibit shows Ginger Rogers wearing a Dache hat at her wedding.

It certainly was a good time to get into the hat business, says Pamela Roskin, one of the graduate-student curators of “Lilly Dache: Glamour at the Drop of a Hat.” Women often bought a new hat each season, and many bought three or four of them.

“A woman’s best hat would be a Lilly Dache,” Miss Roskin says.

The first test of Mrs. Dache’s ingenuity came during the wartime ‘40s, when there were limits on materials and many women were going to work instead of lunch. It’s also when the Dache Net, a hairnet, debuted in drugstores.

A Dache snood, a covering for women’s hair buns, appeared on the cover of a 1942 issue of Vogue, and by 1944, she was making work-friendly turbans and kerchief-style hats. “They were fashion versions of the Rosie the Riveter look,” Miss Roskin says.

For the more formal hats that she continued to make, Mrs. Dache turned to trimmings — such as lace and ribbon, which were not rationed — as the primary material.

The postwar boom brought an opportunity for the hat maker to tackle other parts of the wardrobe, and she introduced both a clothing collection and a fragrance. She and her husband, Jean Despres, a top executive at Coty, were a marketing dream team, putting stylish women wearing Dache hats and outfits in the cosmetic company’s ads.

The 1950s was a transitional period for hats. In the early years, hats became ultradramatic and ultraelegant — true status symbols, but by the end of the decade, interest in hats had begun to wane.

Mrs. Dache started to create hats that mimicked hairstyles: A cropped hat made of yellow-and-black feathers with a headband-style bow featured in the exhibit is a perfect example.

Young designer Roy Halston, who went on to be Jackie Kennedy’s hat maker of choice, had his first job with Lilly Dache in the late 1950s. A pillbox hat was in the collection by 1959.

Hairstyles of the ‘60s greatly influenced the direction of hats. They were either very small or very large to accommodate the trend of women wearing their hair longer and looser.

Because she was the standard-bearer of her industry, her peers were understandably upset when Mrs. Dache turned out at a big social event in the ‘60s without a hat on her head, according to Miss Roskin. Mrs. Dache explained that it simply was not all that fashionable to wear hats anymore and that she would start wearing wigs — which, of course, she also sold.

Mrs. Dache retired in 1968 but kept her hand in the fashion business, licensing her name to menswear companies. She died in 1990, and in 2002 became the only milliner featured in the Fashion Walk of Style in the Garment District.

“Lilly Dache: Glamour at the Drop of a Hat” at the Museum at FIT is on display through Saturday.

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