If you do an Internet search for "Ascot hats," you'll get 831,000 matches. And out of that, if you click on "images," your screen will be filled with pictures of fabulous hats more than 61,000 of them.
Then there are the hats inspired by the Ascot scene in "My Fair Lady," the musical theater staple by Lerner and Loewe. The Ascot hats are so iconic that Pioneer Theatre Company brought in a milliner to make the hats for the musical, which opens the 2008-09 season on Friday.
"I marveled I could get a college degree doing something I'd done my whole life," said milliner Sharon King, who, after years of making doll clothes, studied costume design in college. "We had a whole semester of millinery, which is really unusual. I didn't know at the time how good a program I was in."
With the encouragement of her teachers, King pursued millinery the business of ... hats.
Thirty years later, King has kept herself very busy, "It's definitely a full-time job ... and I'm always doing things I've never done before."
"You'll always have work," King adds. "I'm in the Motion Picture Union and if you look at the list of costumers, there are thousands of them and only about four or five milliners."
King's work spans from stage to screen, working most notably on "Titanic." "It was very intense, and so exciting," King said, mentioning numerous times what an honor it was to be working "with so many authentic pieces."
And there were some added perks. While fitting a red beret worn by a young girl in the movie, "I had to open the side band. Inside that hat band was what they did at the time they used folded-up newspaper. And lo and behold, I unfolded it and it was a millinery ad from 1886. That was really a treasure."
The Ascot hats in "My Fair Lady" are from an era similar to "Titanic." "They were typically very large hats anyway, and they went over the top for this production," King said. "They're huge, large-scale eye-catching. On the edge of curious and kind of ridiculous but amazing. That's why it's very fun, it's very whimsical."
And the actors agree. "They're amazing!" said Elizabeth Stanley, who is playing the lead role, Eliza Doolittle. "I had mine on for the first time the other night. It makes you feel completely transformed, which seems like a lot to say for one article of clothing."
PTC regulars saw Stanley in "Beauty and the Beast," as Belle. "A hat makes you taller. It makes your presence that much more grand. The way it frames your face it accentuates your eyes, your hair.
Stanley, who starred on Broadway in "Cry Baby" and was also in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of "Company," has seen her fair share of costume/wig shops. "They have a great shop here. It's always a pleasure to come back because I know I'm going to be looking good."
King's process is one that takes a bit of time. With the design sketches and actor's head measurements in hand, King makes a milliner's rough draft a version of the hat made out of cheaper materials that is then fitted to the actor's head. When King feels comfortable with the mock-up, she begins to make the hat. "Eliza's Ascot hat took eight hours to make. When I build, I focus on comfort for the actors the actors don't need to worry about their hats. I make an effort to make them as light as possible and as secure as possible.
"I believe in the mantra that we're only as good as our tools. I'm very specific about that," King said. She travels with her own machine, which "knows what to do. It needs to go from sewing straw and leather, to something much more delicate. The rest of her kit includes spinners, special curved needles and a flexible tape measure called a sailors curve.
But she's also one who loves a good challenge. "You don't always have the perfect block (used to shape the hat) so there have been times I've blocked on my wok."
There are also design challenges. "This show has a trick with one of the hats. They have a derby, and they flip it up on to their head," said King, who has to figure out a way to weight the hat to ease the actor's handling. "The choreographer had already done some research on hat tricks with a clown. The clown suggested weighting the hat with pennies I think I'll try them under the brim first."
King still loves her job and has also fallen into another side benefit: Making headwear for people undergoing chemotherapy, cancer or brain surgery.
"That's dealing with the human element, so I feel very privileged to be part of that. Everything else I make is for people who only exist on stage or movies, so it's very satisfying to make hats for people with those kinds of requirements."
But for now, King has spent most of the last three weeks in the basement in PTC hat shop. "I love it. I love what I do. I'm very passionate and motivated by my work. Millinery is just a gas!"Besides King's hats, "My Fair Lady" also stars: Paul DeBoy as Professor Higgins; Jeff Brooks as Alfred Doolittle; and PTC favorite Max Robinson as Col. Pickering.
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