Hatters Happy About Princess Beatrice's Crazy Millinery

Possibly the most enduring image of the royal wedding between Prince William and his commoner bride, Kate Middleton, was the fanciful hat worn by Princess Beatrice, William's cousin. Gravity-defying and startling, the bow-shaped "sculptural" hat in a "delicate tea rose silk" designed for the princess by milliner Philip Treacy inspired derision, adoration, passionate defense and imitation.

The hat has been called ridiculous, crazy and even compared to the headgear of the ugly stepsisters in Disney's Cinderella. (Treacy, by the way, said his inspiration was "beauty and elegance," a rather oblique and obscure way of saying he thinks it's lovely, thank you very much.)

Here's the thing, though: This hat did its job. Not only did it give rise to a flurry of attention about Beatrice -- which perhaps has not been quite flattering -- it has also inspired a renewed interest in British millinery and, indeed, millinery worldwide. According to the Hat Gallery in London, "We're definitely expecting hats to start reappearing at weddings; sales have risen by up to 20% since the [royal] wedding."Business at other hat shops in London is up as much as 60% since this time last year, and at Philip Treacy, sales have doubled. "It has had a real impact on how people view wedding headwear," Jane Taylor told The Guardian, increasing demand for "beautiful cocktail hats and pillboxes."

Especially this one particular crazy/beautiful hat. Not only are knockoffs, paper copies and magnets with photos of Princess Beatrice in the hat selling on eBay, but the actual article is up for sale (the auction ends May 22 at 17:01 British Standard Time, but you'll have to act fast to get qualified for bidding if you want it). At press time, the bidding was already over £20,000 (about $33,000 USD). Proceeds will go to UNICEF and Children in Crisis.

While hatmakers used to be able to count on purchases by all respectable women -- and a weekly supply of new millinery for the upper classes during the "season" in large cities like London, Paris, Rome and New York up through the mid-20th century -- in recent decades, hats have been largely relegated to costume-y annual luncheons and garden parties like the one benefiting the Central Park Conservancy each May.

Hats of the Royal Wedding 2011

And then there's the horse races. In May each year, hundreds of ladies don spectacular bespoke hats for the Kentucky Derby; around the same time, debutantes, college co-eds and Virginia society gals don sundresses and hats for the Foxfield Steeplechase. It's not until June, though, that the famous Royal Ascot Races take place in Berkshire, England. On Ladies' Day, you'll see creations that will make Princess Beatrice's hat seem tame; this edible ice cream cone hat wowed crowds in 2009, for instance. I don't even know how to describe this one (sorbet, butterflies, and a baking rack on a bed of lettuce leaves?).

It's Ascot season that would usually kick off the hat sales for London's milliners, though, and this year there's been a resurgence in demand for wedding hats (the season for those is, of course, much longer and offers a much greater variety of customers).

Far from being a symbol of royal excess and the silliness of British fashion, Princess Beatrice may just have kicked a whole industry back into modernity. And the impacts of this will surprise you: Did you know, for instance, that millineries were traditionally owned by women? This makes hatters some of the first respectable women-owned businesses, a proud and feminist heritage for the aspiring hat artist of today.

After the hubbub over the silliness is through, I predict hat makers -- even those in the U.S. -- will see a new interest in their products and a new clientele who, with aims of selfishness or glory or even just fun, will steal a bit of the limelight from the bride. A democratic ideal indeed, is it not? Princess Beatrice: beautiful, revolutionary and the kick-starter of an old but not tired British fashion industry.

Who would have thought a tea-rose silk hairbow could have done all that?
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