Millinery is Flourishing Around the Main Line and Beyond
Local milliners are leading the revival of high-end hat making, with their work popping up everywhere from the Devon Horse Show to Australia’s Melbourne Cup.
Tiffany Arey models one of her designs. Photographs by Jim Graham.
For one day at the Devon Horse Show, hats—not horses—are the main event. As a child growing up in Penn Valley, Tiffany Arey attended the horse show with her mother. Years later, in 2011, she was determined to be part of Ladies Day, even taking time off from her corporate job so she could attend. “I’d always liked hats and fashion, even when I was younger,” she says. “A few months before they announced the Mad Hatter theme for the contest, I started making a hat to the best of my ability.”
Arey won her category that day at the Devon Horse Show. Spurred on by that victory, she pursued millinery more seriously. “I started reading everything I could get my hands on, from old books on making hats to some newer books that are considered the bibles of the millinery world,” she says. “I scoured the internet for information and videos, and I started practicing on my own.”
Arey would go on to win more awards in the coming years, taking advantage of sewing skills learned in school and from her grandmother. She founded Tiffany Arey Millinery in 2014 and is now a noted member of a local millinery community that’s small but robust. Throughout the Main Line and the Brandywine Valley, she and a handful of other artisans maintain its traditions while pushing boundaries. Every May and June, millinery is an essential component of the Radnor Hunt Races and the Devon Horse Show. It’s also part of the Willowdale Steeplechase and Point-to-Point at Winterthur in Delaware, and it’s making headway in the bridal-wear sector.
In 2010, after two years in her native Serbia, Milica Schiavio returned to the Main Line with a passion “to do something beautiful—something that makes you memorable,” she recalls. “I went to a craft supply store, and I started gluing and sewing.”
A graduate of the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Schiavio grew up around glamorous women, including a Slovenian countess who loved hats. She spent time working for Philadelphia artist Helen Drutt, which further fueled her interest in wearable works of art. Early experiences at the Radnor Hunt Races with her mother also held some sway.
Milliners Tiffany Arey (left) and Milica Schiavio sport two of their unique designs at the Radnor Hunt Races.
Schiavio’s hats make use of unique and found objects, which are often added to existing frames to create something new. She made her first hat out of buckram, and embellishments range from flowers and feathers to eggshells, maps, salad bowls and even lampshades. “They’re quite out there,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll [use] ink toner [cartridges]—all sorts of things. It’s definitely out-of-the-box thinking.”
In her early years as a milliner, Schiavio turned more than a few heads with her hats at Brandywine Polo matches and parties in Philadelphia. Today, her bold, whimsical style draws a certain type of client to Milica in the Hat Millinery, which she founded in 2011. “Not everybody has to like it—it’s eccentric,” she says. “I’ve been around eccentric people.”
Less eccentric but no less stunning are Arey’s intricate designs, which come in an array of elegant, timeless styles—everything from the saucer recently favored by the Duchess of Sussex, to halos, low crowns and fuller rims, to the headband styles the Duchess of Cambridge has been wearing. “I like the smallness of millinery,” says Arey. “I really enjoy taking straw or felt and creating hand-formed shapes. The sculptural, architectural style is really what I’ve been gravitating toward lately.”
Arey works with materials like sinamay—woven from the processed stalks of the abaca tree—and parasisal straw. “It’s flexible,” she says of the parasisal. “It’s a beautiful, finely woven straw that comes from Asia and takes a craftsman weeks to create.”
She also uses felt and embroidered silks for a “more couture look,” sourcing her materials from all over, including Australia and England. “There are so many things that catch my eye, whether it’s something in nature or something manmade,” she says. “I’ll start making notes or a sketch, or grab a quick photograph of something that inspires me that I might want to base a hat on.”
Sometimes, one hat will lead to another. “I usually have so many in the process of being made at one time that I kind of flit from one to the other,” says Arey. “I’ll throw down some materials, and they’ll land next to another project I’m working on, and that inspires another whole idea. It’s a pretty organic process.”
Fabrics, too, are sources of inspiration. “I’m fascinated by pattern, texture and movement, wherever it’s found,” Arey says. “Lately, I’ve been mesmerized watching videos of starling murmurations. Finding a way to capture a sense of their beautiful, shifting patterns in a design is my latest quest.”
Schiavio is also inspired by nature, favoring floral designs and felt as a material. A flower lover, she’s planted hundreds of seeds, filling every bit of windowsill space. She has also taken up hunting, using feathers from these outdoor forays in her hats.
Schiavio sporting one of her hats.
For both women, hat making is a way to escape the buttoned-up corporate world. Arey works in internal communications at Accenture, a global management consulting and professional services firm; Schiavio is the vice president of business development for the Brandywine Abstract Company in Bryn Mawr. “It’s very freeing,” says Schiavio. “This is really a form of self-expression. I don’t have to conform to anything—other than that it has to balance on the head.”
Millinery has deep roots in fashion history, beginning with its earliest iterations in ancient Europe and Anatolia. More recently, royals have sparked its resurgence. Queen Elizabeth II is rarely seen at daytime events without one of her signature hats. Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, meanwhile, favor smaller, more intricate headpieces.
In America, milliners like Arey and Schiavio have capitalized on the demand for fashionable, one-of-a-kind hats for the Kentucky Derby and steeplechase events. “I never set out with the intention of doing anything more than [making hats] for myself,” says Arey. “People started expressing interest and buying them, and that’s how I eventually started this side business.”
Demand isn’t letting up. Every day is a balancing act for Arey, who dedicates evenings and weekends to hats. “It doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for other hobbies or too much socializing,” she jokes.
Local milliners see an uptick in demand come spring—especially for large brimmed hats to wear at Kentucky Derby soirees. “At those parties, people are more liberal in terms of [style]. They’re willing to wear wilder hats,” says Schiavio. “People start contacting me in April, even up until the day before the Radnor Hunt Races.”
As the season progresses, hats pop up at Point-to-Point, Willowdale and, most of all, Radnor Hunt. “The hat competition at Radnor has grown,” says Schiavio, a contest judge and a committee co-chair for Radnor’s picnic patron area.
At the Devon Horse Show, the hats tend to be more outlandish. “While it’s supposed to be strictly a hat contest, there are people who show up in costumes,” says Arey.
Arey meets with clients in her studio, where many of her hats are showcased. Some of them are available for rent to local clients. She also sees some demand for fall events like Australia’s Melbourne Cup. “The Australians are doing a great job at really pushing the envelope in terms of both fashion and millinery,” she says. “It’s an honor when someone let’s me know they’re going to be taking a hat to wear so far away.”
Creating such intricate designs often takes weeks. “Some things can get very, very involved,” Arey says. “I’m mostly making everything with hand sewing, so it’s very meticulous work.”
And despite a milliner’s best intentions, things don’t always go as planned. “The hat tells you what it wants to be as you’re making it,” Arey says. “You may have somewhere you think you’re going, but your fingers start moving in a different direction because the hat is talking to you.”
Schiavio’s creative process typically takes several weeks—and if things aren’t working, she may scrap a project entirely. She, too, works out of her home, juggling her hat making with her family and career. “[Hats are] just completely free—they’re just how I feel,” says Schiavio. “[They let] you be something else for a moment.”