Theatrical Milliner

  • Theatrical Milliner

A theatrical milliner is a hat maker who is specifically trained in constructing headwear for the stage or film and television. This person works closely with the costume designer to create character-specific hats, bonnets, and other accessories that further enhance the authenticity of the show and complete the actor’s look.


Costume designers rely on theatrical milliners, rather than commercial hat makers, because there are a number of specific concerns the milliner must address when producing accessories for a performer. On stage, a wide brim creates hardships for the lighting designer who is trying to bring out the facial expression of the actor; for the sound designer, there are concerns of unwanted sound reflection that are associated with hats that hang over the performer’s face. There are also variables to account for when dressing dancers, as hats must be precisely weighted so as not to hinder the choreography. In fact, the theatrical milliner spends a great deal of time speaking with the performers and other designers to assess issues like accommodating wigs and microphones worn on the face or around the head. The artisan must ensure that the hat, meant to accentuate the actor’s performance, does not become an impediment.

In design meetings with the client, the theatrical milliner reviews the sketches provided, then discusses choices for fabric and other finishes for each hat. At that stage, this person conducts research to identify the techniques used in making traditional hats of that time period and will attempt to closely mimic the authentic fabrics. He or she will then provide the designer with a mock-up that is a close approximation of what the finished product will look like. The craftsperson holds fittings to gather necessary measurements (these may also be provided by the stage manager) and begins the process of constructing each hat from scratch. Milliners do not simply go out and buy a basic hat that can be embellished, these artists take great pains to create original, one-of-a-kind pieces that are individual to the production and exactly match the designer’s vision. When necessary, the designer may provide fabric or small accessories that have been used on the costume and should therefore be matched in the hat. According to the deadline agreed upon, the milliner will deliver the complete order of hats and may participate in first-look fittings with the actors and costume designer and then make any last adjustments to ensure a proper fit.

Skills & Education

As millinery is a specialty within costume design, a college degree in theatrical design is appropriate for this career. Either through college study or employment, the young artist should seek to apprentice under a veteran milliner in order to receive hands-on training in the techniques of the craft. Naturally, this occupation requires a skilled set of hands that are adept at sewing and making patterns. Like all garment construction, millinery demands an individual with a keen attention to detail that is capable of precisely following a designer’s instructions. An extensive knowledge of theatrical production is necessary, and additional courses in fine art and art history are beneficial. This person must be familiar with the proper handling of numerous types of fabric, and the traditional materials of multiple styles of hats.

What to Expect

Theatrical milliners are master craftspeople that have years of experience within their trade. They are also supervisors of the staff of assistants that serve within a third-party millinery studio or the department of a theater’s costume shop. Most often, these individuals begin as stitchers and patternmakers before finding a specialty in millinery. Therefore, it is helpful to gain professional knowledge in numerous areas of costume fabrication. Other relevant entry-level roles include the dyer, painter, costume craftsperson, and first hand. With appropriate experience in one or more of these positions, you may find an available position for an assistant to the milliner, thus allowing you the opportunity to apprentice under the master artist and gain the necessary tools to advance your career.


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