Flower Hats Blooming in Popularity

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By Jill Brooke

Photographer Delaney Dobson

As a bon vivant who has traveled the globe, R. Couri Hay has seen his share of fashionable hats. The society columnist and publicist has had a front-row seat at the Kentucky Derby, Ascot in London, Monte Carlo, and the New York Central Park hat luncheon as well as seeing many Easter parades. This is why he is in a credible position to observe a growing trend in millinery magnificence.

“The sophisticated ladies are decorating their hats much more with real flowers to give them an added edge,” he observes. “It used to be more silk flowers or sometimes having a hat looking like the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty. But now flowers are blooming everywhere.”

Some of the most creative hat shows on the planet regularly take place at the  Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon hosted by the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy. This do-gooder fashion event has raised over $200 million in recent years, under the leadership of floral hat lover Gillian Miniter and other philanthropists.

“It fits the theme since at the Conservancy luncheon you are surrounded by lilacs in blooms, hyacinths and beautiful displays of flowers on all the tables and surrounding areas,” he says.

Martha Stewart

Timing is everything and in spring, one has many flowers to inspire. Plus hat parties are fun. Conservancy regular and flower innovator Martha Stewart is also hosting her own hat cocktail party in May for the Bedford Riding Lane Association. 

Furthermore, the younger generation is also caring much more about sustainability which ties into using fresh flowers for memorable bonnets. And this applies to other places besides the Central Park Conservancy.

“I think that the reason people are accessorizing their accessories, like hats, and taking it one step forward, is due to a need for originality,” says jewelry designer Madeleine Kowitz Chenevière who routinely is invited to U.S. and British events. “You can wear the same hat over and over again, and each time it’s tailored to your look or mood. Fresh flowers give impermanence to an outfit. It’s about living in the moment. No two moments or experiences will be the same.”

So what would be a festive hat to create?

An Easter bonnet with bold lilies. A garden hat with tendrils of lisianthus or amaranthus also known as Love Lies bleeding.  Perhaps a small chapeau with sprigs of lavender for a Saturday night dinner to match a purple dress. People also love theme parties and you could consider having your own hat party.

After all, as writer Linda Lee says, “If hair really were a woman’s crowning glory, there would be no need for tiaras, earrings, barrettes or crowns.  In fact, women love hats. Just look at little girls playing in a closet.”

Jennifer Reed, a New Jersey floral event designer who won Gold at the 2023 Philadelphia Flower Show, also offers mom and kid classes, as do others. Ditto for grandparents with grandkids. Maybe this could be your next party theme.

Connecticut-based Rebecca La Flamme teaches crown-making classes which have been growing in popularity. “Dried flowers are very helpful and useful,” she says. “Especially strawflowers since they are also easy to string.” This way you can supplement with fresh flowers if desired.

“A cute idea for a Kentucky Derby-themed party is to use fresh flowers like roses, fillers like wax flowers or any other hardy bloom that works well out of water and greenery such as camellia leaves, Italian pittosporum or sweet jasmine,” says Gina Lett-Shrewsberry of California’s “Inspirations by Gina.” “Create a lush flower crown and tie the ends with a nice satin ribbon. Place on your hat and you’ll be the talk of the party with your crowning glory!”

One pitfall to consider when making your own hats with fresh flowers is the weather. Will the hat be worn that day or will you be traveling to get to a destination? It’s not a good day when tulips are wilting on the ribbon vine because there is no water source. Of course, one can use Crowning Glory or better yet, give a hydration bath to protect the flowers’ endurance. But better safe than sorry. You can also use tubes for water and use wire to put in a hat.

Photo Credit – Gerald Palumbo

At New York’s Seasons, A Floral Design Studio,  Gerald Palumbo routinely makes hats for Broadway stars who want drama and fabulousness. Typically a client comes in with their hat to discuss concepts. Over the years of his storied career, he has created many eye-popping hats.

“It’s fun to go to an event and dress up a little bit,” he explains, noting that hats always make a fashion statement.

Some of the special ones included a large headpiece for a winter event. He attached a headpiece where white branches shot up and covered with hand-strung white orchids.  He then also put glass crystals on the branches for a sparkling effect. Attached to the back of the headpiece was a boa filled with sweet-smelling freesia that the client carried under her arm.

“Generally we will have a larger piece custom-attached to the headpiece to secure it,” he says. “You don’t want the flowers and branches falling off.” Other times he has a scull cap attached.

Now of course, not all his creations are THIS much of a production. But he does stress trying to think of themes. What season is it? Do you have a favorite show or book?

One time he strung together clusters of individual petals to create an oversized blossom. “We removed each petal and wired it to be fashioned into a flower,” he says. In fact, petals from a Cymbidian orchid work great as do ones from a camellia. Less can be more.

Another tip to consider is how the flowers move in the hat. “We like pillowy petals that look like the hat is dancing when the person walks. Ilex petals are effective for this effect,” he adds.

Another trendsetter in creating memorable hats is Sue McLeary, also known as Passionflower Sue. The Michigan-based educator, whose new book is “Flowers For All,” often uses headbands for her creations. Furthermore, she creates them sustainably.

For one floral creation, she strung together flowers in bead-like forms and pins them into the headband.

“Every day daffodils become golden trumpet beads with their petals removed,” she says. “The flowers’ inner trumpet is actually very sturdy and long-lasting, perfect for creating expressive, wired wearables.” She advises leaving a bit of empty wire on the end to attach as well to an ear wire.

For this creation, she used a handful of 20 gauge straight floral wires, stem wrap tape, 50 strings of daffodils, and a simple metal headband. Use stem wrap tape to attach them one by one to the metal headband.

“Other flowers that work well include tuberose, fritillary, agapanthus, gladiola – anything tubular, bell or cup-shaped,” she says. For example, one stem’s worth of hyacinth florets created one strung strand.

And if you don’t want to make your own, there are florists that specialize in these hats such as Kentucky’s Magnolia Millinery.

Whether from a headband, skullcap or a big bouncy hat, using fresh flowers will enhance any design.

As Miami-based New York Social Diary writer Lee Fryd says,  “No fake flower can match the beauty of the real thing.”

Jennifer Reed – Photo by Sarah Collier

Gerald Palumbo’s 5 Tips for Fantastic Floral Hats

1. Look for long-lasting flowers

2. Refrain from tulips because they droop

3. Orchids are a good choice for long-lasting and versatility. Roses and hyacinths are also great. Use crocus petals too. Lily blossoms are great for a grand effect.

4. Make greenery your friend since you can drape the hat in between the flowers. Vines are particularly effective.

5. For bigger productions, make sure when you use the water tubes to hide your work. “Someone shouldn’t see or wants to know how I put it together,” he says. “In my opinion, it’s always best to leave people guessing.”

Photo – Magnolia Millinery

Jill Brooke is a former CNN correspondent, Post columnist and editor-in-chief of Avenue and Travel Savvy magazine. She is an author and the editorial director of FPD,  and a contributing editor to Florists’ Review magazine.

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