Lucy Bowler is a couture milliner. “It’s a great surname for a milliner”, she smiles. “It’s funny – I married a man with the surname before I made hats. My husband likes to take credit for being my inspiration, but we have known each other since childhood. I remember when sitting around the table at his family house and announcing that when I grew up, I was going to make things that people would want to buy. Everyone laughed, but even then I had an idea of what it was I wanted to do.
“Now I make hats from start to finish and also customise hats for particular occasions. Hats can be small, so a fascinator might be the size perhaps of a single bloom, whilst I might also do a bouquet-sized bonnet and everything in between. I love that hats are functional and beautiful at the same time. They finish off an outfit in a way that nothing else quite can. Whether that’s a discreet sign-off or a flourish with added razzmatazz. A hat can be classic or simple, or something altogether more flamboyant. It will always add an element of glamour to an outfit.
There’s an escapism: they’re so easy to put on, but wearing a hat or a headpiece changes the way a person feels inside. It’s a great feeling to make people happy and see the confidence or sass factor that a hat can add to their character.”
Lucy enjoys helping people visualise what they’ll look like in a particular style and encouraging them to choose embellishments to suit their event – which might be flowers or elements of vintage brooches, feathers or something altogether more unusual – and then physically making their perfect hat ‘happen’ for them.
“There’s something wonderful about crafting something with your hands and making beautiful the elements you are presented with. This is something I inherited from my dad who spent his whole life restoring classic cars. There was such a magic and a joy in the finished work at the end of a long process and weeks or months of hard work. Fortunately a hat doesn’t take so long – it could be a day or as long as four days from start to finish.”
“Lucy always enjoyed embroidery because it was like painting with thread, and I have a background in fine art,”
She explains, “so that always informs what I create. I see myself primarily as a textile artist, and then as a milliner second although hats are my passion. I was always interested in wearable items, and even as a schoolgirl I loved period costumes, creating corsets and clothes based on vintage patterns for a china doll as part of a school project. It felt natural for me to move into hat-making for people in every walk of life rather than extreme fashion for the catwalk.”
Hats offer everyone classic elegance for a wedding or a conversation piece at the races. They can also be a bit naughty – whether flirty or feathered – and Lucy describes how a simple leaf shaped headpiece she might create in crystalline white to adorn a bride could equally be dark or even macabre for a Mardi Gras parade.
“One of my hats is inspired by a giant 3D abstract-yet-figurative installation in thread I created a few years ago for a flamenco project, for which I learnt the dance and became completely captivated. I absorbed the Spanish influences, and researched the history and meaning. Lucy’s ‘flamenco’ hat is small and neat just as flamenco appears clipped and contained, and yet just as the dance is totally unchoreographed – nothing is pre-rehearsed – the hat is a swirl of sultry red fabric with touches of gold, a nod to the music’s gypsy roots, and a sensuous red rose that’s removable for a moment of play.”
“I can be quite shy,” continues Lucy, “but I think there’s a bit of a performer inside me waiting to get out. When I go and see a circus I feel as if I was supposed to be in it – perhaps in another life. I was entranced by The Greatest Showman, and I love Gifford’s Circus in particular. They’re a locally-based group which present a traditional show carefully crafted along a different theme each year with rich music that captures the flavours of the setting, whether that’s The Wild West or Tolstoy’s Russia. I was hooked from the first time I saw them and I’ve been many times over the years now. They always look like they’re having a wonderful time. It’s infectious. Who wouldn’t want to run away with the circus?”
Lucy has always been interested in people and the many different ways of life that people have. She lived in Africa for a while as a child, which opened her eyes at a young age to the many varieties of lifestyle and she laughs that if I wasn’t a hat maker – or a travelling showman – then she’d be an anthropologist. Although the travelling lifestyle must be very hard and the physical work involved in training for circus acts and caring for the animals present challenges, a circus troupe present a bright colourful spectacular which has the power to transport you somewhere else entirely in your imagination. It is this freedom and feeling of escapism that Lucy hopes her hats offer.
Inspired by the circus, Lucy first made a gold sequinned top hat, and more recently created a hat named ‘The Circus’ that’s in a freeform sculptural style and is proving rather a signature piece. “It’s a stylized fusion of two swirls in bright pink and purple, the sweeping curves drawing the movement you’d see in the ring or the action you’d make if you were looping rope or ribbons. Although I know where the front was when I planned the shape, just like the performance it’s in the round so you can choose to wear it whichever way the mood takes you. That’s part of your own performance. It can be made in any colour combination to fit a mood or enliven a particular outfit. Like a performance, no two will ever be the same.”
Photographs by Philip King with thanks
Robin Cottage Studio & Boutique
24 The Lane , Fritwell,
Open for Hat & Boutique appointments Monday – Thursday 10.00 am – 5.00 pm
Open Friday & Saturday 10.00am – 2.00pm for people to drop in.
Evening appointments are available on request.
Please telephone to make an appointment.
Tel: 01869 338387