…With All the Frills Upon It
The idea of showing off a new spring hat is probably intertwined with Christian traditions surrounding the end of Lent and the excitement that comes with the sense of rebirth and renewal. Special Easter garb dates back at least to Shakespearean times; an “Easter suit” is referenced in Romeo and Juliet.
Wearing a bonnet specifically designed for Easter became popular after the Civil War, when communities held parades to boost community spirit. The New York City Easter parade had become so popular by the 1940s that up to one million people took part. And once Fred Astaire and Judy Garland strolled into the 1948 film Easter Parade, every woman (and quite a few men) wanted to be seen in a fashionable Easter bonnet.
As interest in Easter bonnets grew, milliners rose to the challenge. They made hats with not only ribbons and flowers, but also feathers, lace, and even taxidermy. Easter bonnet designs—then as now—ranged from high style to hijinks. In the Instagram sensation of its time, actress Ann Miller famously posed wearing a flower-covered hinged top hat containing a live rabbit.
At least as far back as the mid-20th century, the Rehoboth Beach Easter Promenade attracted crowds to celebrate the holiday and the arrival of warmer weather by strolling the boards in their Easter finery. The Rehoboth Beach Chamber of Commerce sponsored the promenade for many years and awarded prizes for categories that included Best-Dressed Babies, Best Dressed Families, and Best Easter Bonnet.
LGBTQ+ milliners have played a part in the evolution of hats. Otto Lucas, who created hats for Greta Garbo and Wallis Simpson, was a German-born gay Jewish man. He escaped the rise of Nazism in his homeland to go to London in the 1930s. He opened a salon on glamorous Bond Street, where he proceeded to make stunning hats (three are in the collection of the Museum of London), some with matching hatpins.
Hats fall in and out of popularity, but a great hat continues to be the mark of a well-dressed person. That is fortunate for top milliners such as Albertus Swanepoel. He was recently listed as one of the “5 LGBTQ+ Milliners in the US to Know” by the Milliners Guild. His hats have been featured in Vogue, W Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, T Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal, to name a few. He has worked on Broadway shows and television series such as 30 Rock, True Blood, and Sex and the City.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of Easter Bonnets nowadays,” he says. He confesses he doesn’t even go to the parade on Fifth Avenue. “I think people are now trying to be funny or outrageous instead of witty, and let’s not even mention chic.” His clients have included Aretha Franklin, Kate Winslet, Sasha Baron Cohen, and Yoko Ono.
Other prominent LGBTQ+ milliners include Guy Carsone, who started his career running a New York costume house and grew up in his grandmother’s garment factory on West 39th Street, where “every day it was a parade of different hats”; Jason Murillo, whose work as a hairstylist lead him to hat making; and Corina Haywood, who collected vintage hats before taking a millinery course at the Fashion Institute of Technology and now creates “a spectrum of gendered and gender-free hats and headpieces.”
Tommy Cobau, who was included in “5 LGBTQ+ Milliners in the US to Know,” creates headwear and accessories for Broadway shows, national tours, regional theater companies, television shows, individual performers, and everyday people looking for something special to wear. He serves as head milliner for the Metropolitan Opera, and in what must be one of the more unusual millinery challenges, designed the party hats made from vintage Tupperware for the Tupperware party scene in season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime (under the direction of costume designer Donna Zakowska).
Increasingly, dogs are adorned in Easter bonnets as well, from simple bunny ears to shameless chapeaus and fascinating fascinators. Consider master pet couturier Anthony Rubio. With a formal education in women’s wear design, he had no reservations about delving into the world of pet fashions. His creations are inspired by anything from movies to fairy tales and especially by the best women’s wear couturiers of Europe. Anthony became the first pet fashion designer to showcase at New York’s Fashion Week in February 2012.
Albertus Swanepoel is correct that the typical parade participant now wears an Easter bonnet with more than just “frills upon it.” Towering paper mâché constructions, mechanized displays, and populations of marshmallow peeps have dominated, although some still opt for elegance. So, whether you want to be the grandest lady or proudest fellow in the Easter parade or simply want to be in the rotogravure (think CAMPshots in Letters), be sure to don your best Easter bonnet. ▼
Want to Know More?
“The Life and Legacy of Otto Lucas,” Museum of London YouTube video.
“Hats Off: Why Do We Make Easter Bonnets, Why Do We Have Parades and How Did the Tradition Begin?” Jennifer Newton, Becky Pemberton, thesun.co.uk, 19 Mar 2018.
“The Importance of an Easter Bonnet,” April 7, 2020. National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
“Milliner Profile: Otto Lucas,” Posted on February 22, 2022 by Royal Hats.
“A Brief History of Easter Bonnets,” Record Gazette, Mar 21, 2019, Updated Sep 28, 2019.
“Bonkers for bonnets: At the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade, nothing is too ridiculous to be worn as a hat,” Alexandra Charitan, April 18, 2019.
“5 LGBTQ+ Milliners in the U.S. to Know,” Interviews & Forward by Rowell Concepcion. Milliners Guild.
Parading Easter finery in Rehoboth Beach in mid-20th century, April 11, 2017, Cape Gazette.
Nancy (Day) Sakaduski is an award-winning writer and editor who owns Cat & Mouse Press in Lewes, Delaware.
Photo credits: Easter Parade in Rehoboth Beach, photo by Herbert Moore, mid-20th century, Delaware Public Archives/Delaware Economic Development Office Photo Collection.
Anthony Rubio with Bogie and Kimba. Photo by SimplyRobb. Photo: Designer Albertus Swanepoel in his studio.