Orsinimedici1951's Thistle Cottage Studio Blog

Rhode Island’s Rich Millinery History
May 22, 2013, 01:18
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           Rhode Island’s Rich Millinery History


    by Orsini-Medici Couture Millinery


“The Wedding Cake House” 

Home to A &L; Tirocchi Dressmaking&Millinery at 514 Broadway, Prov., RI from 1915 -1947.













left:Lucky Lindy Cap ca. 1927-1930 with Kennedy’s (Prov.RI) label




right: Wool felt scullcap with raven feathers cascade by  Joan Higgins ca.1940 Prov. RI






 David Whipple

 Prov. RI 

Bleached Beaver

Ladies Riding Hat

ca. 1810







                   A Brief History of Millinery in Rhode Island from 1865 to 1960


    The term milliner, is derived from Italy, during the time of Marco Polo’s travels with his father in 1260 along the famous Silk Road, returning with many treasures including some of the most precious spices, dyes, and silks

 anywhere in the world.  Many of these textile materials were used by couturiers and milliners in Milan.  The word “milaner” eventually became widely used and evolved to milliner. The word milliner, orginally referred to male couturiers, such as Charles Frederick Worth and Paul Poiret. After decades of gender juggling,  the word milliner finally came to rest with female hatmakers, while male hat makers eventually preferred to be called hatters.  Here in Rhode Island, a brief investigation shows that as early as 1803, and most likely much earlier, there were hatters and milliners creating hats, particularly in downtown Providence.  Apparently, it was such a thriving business, that  there were local millinery supply houses such as Grossman~Morris located at 100 Washington St., and Schruber’s Wholesale Millinery Supply at 67 Union St. catering to the needs of the local millinery business throughout the state. 




     David Whipple, was a well known local milliner/hatter in business since 1803-1820’s, and had one of his beautiful creations of a bleached beaver, English style  ladies riding hat of 1810, featured in an antiques magazine recently.  At that time his competiton would have been the Providence Hat Manufacturing Company.   Further research from business directories of 1865 and through the decades up until the 1950’s, tells us that there were never less than 50-60 milliners and hatters, in RI, and particularly in downtown Providence.  Ten of which were in Newport. On Thames Street, in 1865, one might frequent the salon of Mrs. W. Ramwell, or one of her competitors such as, the house of Chittledon&Clarke, Carpenter&Justin,  Ira French, or Mrs. Tinkstaedt.  

    Many milliners concentrated in downtown Providence, apparently thriving rather than competing, as an unexpected number of them of them shared the same address in suites on Washington St., Mathewson St, Westminster St., Union and Eddy Sts., Dorrance St, and even on the East Side of Providence, and Broadway.           One  cannot mention Broadway on Federal Hill (Little Italy) in Providence, without mentioning the legacy of the Tirocchi sisters.   The magnificent Italianate gingerbread Victorian mansion, popularly known as the “Wedding Cake House” at 514 Broadway, was home to A&L Tirocchi Dressmaking.  In business from 1915-1947, sisters Anna and Laura Tirocchi, served their training as dressmakers in Italy, and came to this country, where they catered to an elite clientele, and traveled  annually to Paris to shop for the finest textiles and trims.  When they retired and closed the business in 1947, the house sat sealed up as a time capsule, pretty much as they’d left it. In the hands of their nephew, Dr. Louis Cella, the estate sat idol until it was sold only recently to the Community Works of RI project in January of 2011 , dedicated to preserving architecturally significant, historical properties.     The contents of the Tirocchi business were donated to the Rhode Island School of Design, and eventually, Textile and Costume Director Susan Hay, mounted  an exhibition of over 300 pieces of clothing and textiles, at the RISD Museum, recreating the atleier nearly undisturbed, as it was found.  Predominantly dressmakers, the Tirocchi sisters also created bridal headpieces to go with their wedding gown designs.  Many milliners came and went throughout the 1920’s to 1950, but there were many who became fixtures in downtown Providence for 30-40 years!!  

     In the Arcade, America’s first and oldest indoor mall, Bon Ton Millinery occupied suite 3 of that historic landmark.   On Westminster St. in 1922 one might find such millinery establishments as 

Abbey Ahern , Annie Burke, Cassidy&Fox, Clayton&Co., Daniel Mills Co., and Hebdons Millinery.

Tweny-eight milliners in Providence alone, in 1922!! Caroline Reboux had already designed the cloche in Paris, in 1917, which by the way, was not the popular bell shape it eventually evolved to.  Her orginal cloche prototype, had a flat topped crown, and a brim.  She was quoted in British VOGUE in 1923 as lamenting the popularity of the cloche, and begged consumers to allow millinery designers to move on and allow them to create new styles!! 

     In the 1930’s, we could find milliners spreading out from Federal Hill to the East Side, with  Fitz Ross hats on Westminister St., Rose McDermott on Bridgham St., LaRose Millinery and Samuel Millinery on Weybosset St., and the very successful Vogue Hat shop on Mathewson St., to name a few.  Coco Chanel had already been in business for 20 years, having opened her first hat shop in Paris on Rue Cambon in 1910!!   

    In 1940, we would frequent such establishments as BonTon Millinery, STILL thriving in suite 3 of the Arcade, along with Mary Keenan Millinery in suite 17.  With no less than 13 actively working milliners on Westminister Street alone, it is clear, that there was no lack of business to go around!!!  At #104 Westminister Street, and later at 187 Westminister room 301, was the very talented hat designer, Joan Higgins.  I have in my personal vintage hat collection, an original Joan Higgins of the latter address. It is an ultra-chic, black wool felt scullcap, with a luxurious cascade of raven feathers, pictured above.  

    Beginning in the 1940’s at 57 Eddy St. room 209, was Clar-Mar Millinery.  There is record of a Claire’s Millinery on Randall St. in 1930, but it is not clear if that might have been one in the same or not.  Clar-Mar survived the ups and downs of the millinery business as the hat lost it’s place in the world of fashion , and continued making bespoke hats right up until it closed in 1990, with it’s last owner, Joan Edge, retiring and selling the business, making Clar-Mar the longest surviving millinery shop in RI!!   In my research, I found that most of the milliners in business in the 1940’s, were still in business in the 1950’s, and a handful still were working in downtown Providence in the 1960’s, competing with the millinery departments of the Shepard Co., Cherry&Webb, Peerless, and Gladdings.  The Shepard Company being the first department store to have a millinery salon, was headed up by seasoned milliner, Mrs. Georgia Krafts in the early 1900’s.   The history of millinery is such a fascinating subject, as it is also a chronicle of female vanity.  As hair styles changed, form followed function.  The 1830‘s French Bibi bonnet, or poke bonnet as it was called in the states, accomodated the hairstyle of the day known as Apollo’s knot, worn on top of the head.  The hats of the Gibson Girl era accomodated the lavish upswept do’s, with circumferences up to 28 inches.  The average head in those days being just 20 to 22 inches.  As hair became more voluminous in the 1950’s and 60’s, the bouffant hairstyles did not lend themselves well to hats. 

After spending hours at the hairdressers, and untold dollars on their coiffeurs, women wouldn’t dream of damaging their investment with the dreaded effects of “hat hair”!!  The pillbox, made popular by Jackie Kennedy, sat demurely at the back of the head, doing little damage to the coiffured styles of the day.  The whimsey, barely a hat at all, did next to no damage, and accomodated the ever popular beehive do!!    The 1960’s brought about the MOD look and the British invasion, and for a time, hats were back, but not for long in the US, and not as they once were–a staple accessory, never to be left the in a hat box!!  

     We can certainly thank the British for keeping hats in the public eye!  Designers like Stephen Jones, and Philip Treacy, have put hats on the map for decades.  A recent show entitled HATS: An Anthology by Stephen Jones, came to the Peabody~Essex Museum in Salem, last September, where I got to meet this genius milliner!!   Both milliners are great friends, and both have created bespoke pieces for the royal family, and celebrities like Madonna, and Lady Gaga.  Both are always called upon by great fashion design houses like Dior, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, and Louis Vuitton, to  help create millinery lines for their runway collections.  The Spanish are no exceptions with design houses like Tolentino of Seville, creating spectacular runway headpieces, that are pure wearable art!!  

      Princess Diana and the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson always wore them with such panache.  And the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, always creates a stir each time she’s seen wearing a new hat!! America still lags behind in reaching for a hat, beyond practical purposes of sun protection or winter warmth, apart from events like the Kenticky Derby, or the races at Saratoga.  Still, down south, ladies love their church hats, and  Red Hat Society members don outrageous creations in red and purple with reckless abandon!! The official cheerleading team for the wearing of hats!! We love them for that!!

  So, in conclusion, the more we wear hats, the more others will wear them.  A hat has magical powers to lift your spirits, and allows you to make an individual statement.  A hat will most definitely get you noticed, which may be why some people don’t like wearing them.  A hat definitely requires that you also don your “hatitude” when you put one on!!  There are far too many women who say they are “not a hat person”. To which I usually respond, “Well, you have a head don’t you?” The more we wear them, the more milliners will have work, and ultimately an entire industry could be revived, providing untold employment opportunities for all related industries that support the millinery industry!!  So, go forth and wear a hat; it’s good for the economy!!! Now if we can only get Michelle Obama to be our spokewoman, and get her to wear more hats!! 

                                                                                          Hats off to you!!

Anyone interested in Orsini-Medici Couture Millinery’s convenient weekend millinery workshops are invited to email us at thistlecottagestudio@gmail.com for more information.  

Please see our online retail shops at http:/www.orsinimedici1951.etsy.com 


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April 12, 2010, 23:29
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