If you’re watching a stylish movie and you find yourself thinking “where *did* she get that hat??” you’re unconsciously paying tribute to Hollywood’s favorite hatter, Lilly Daché. At least 75% (and probably more like 90%) of the hats you see on screen, across the studios and on virtually every star, were Daché originals. Lilly’s prolific production and relentless genius crowned the heads of Tinseltown’s beauties and her atelier backroom became a confessional for its stars.
No bridal veil or baby bonnets for Lilly
In her native France, Lilly Daché was considered (by her mother, no less) a homely child with two left hands. Lilly’s thin, strong face with its green cat’s eyes and framing of straight red hair were deemed ugly. Merci, Maman! Because a pretty face (or a hefty dowry) were key to the only viable future for a girl—marriage and kids—Mama openly and loudly despaired of Lilly ever finding a husband. Not too surprisingly, little Lilly turned to decoration and adornment to amend her failings, even to braiding cherries into her hair and making hats from green grape leaves. Her passion for finding ways to create beauty for herself and other women took her to Paris to study hatmaking (after all, as Lilly says, every Frenchwoman knows that if your hat is correct, it can compensate for a world of faults).
Lilly unleashed her creativity; skilled herself in Parisian craftsmanship, and, at 18, sailed solo for America, believing that there, single women had a better chance for freedom and fulfillment. After a few false starts (New Jersey!), she made her way to NYC, but almost immediately failed as a Macy’s employee for insisting on quality over quantity.
Undaunted, she found work in a small hat shop and daringly (but typically) bought it from the departing owner. Lilly’s boundless enthusiasm, wild creativity, adorable French accent, Paris-trained artistic inspiration, and die-hard work ethic soon ensured she had more clients than she could handle, from Broadway chorines to fledgling movie stars to millionaires’ sugarbabies. Lilly’s custom-crafted cloches created such demand she soon had to hire workers and move to a higher rent district. Within a decade, anyone who was anyone proudly strutted out of Lilly’s bustling atelier with a Lilly Daché hatbox on her arm.
A glimpse in the rearview mirror
Because she was informed she wasn’t pretty, Lilly became obsessed with beauty and glamour—she reasoned if she could learn how to make other women beautiful, she could become so herself. So, she mastered all the secrets of the harem, including proportion, color, line—but it was her instinct, passion (she would refuse to sell hats she considered unflattering or inappropriate), loyalty, and fun-loving heart that brought her customers back.
Lilly wrote 2 books about her adventures in hattery: Talking Through My Hats and Lilly Daché’s Glamour Book.
Reading them is a lip-smacking time trip—alas, the days of must-wear millinery are gone. But the power of accessories or garments to enhance appearance and foster confidence is ever true. Let’s take a look at Lilly’s client list and see what she has to teach us about the glamour of adornment.
“Marion Davies in a 1923 cloche, pulled down over the ears. That was New York in the days of lovely nonsense, ticker tape, speak-easies, Mayor Walker, Lindbergh…”
“Carole Lombard in a dashing big beret, pulled down over one eye. That was Hollywood in the thirties. Clark Gable, neon lights, full-dress openings, autographs…”
Lilly catalogs her worlds of influence in her book. She says she’s made more hats than anyone in the world and backs up that claim with tales of insight and intrigues. “And with each hat is a story. It is the story of the woman who wore the hat and why she bought it; the people she loved and the people she hated; the places she went and the things that happened to her, perhaps because of the hat. A woman’s hat is close to her heart…it is her way of saying to the world: “See, this is what I am like!” Or—“This is how I should like to be.”
“Buying a hat,” says Lilly, “is an emotional thing. When a woman is in the full glory of youth and beauty, she buys a hat to cap the climax of her glamour. When she grows old, she buys a hat to turn back a little the relentless hands of time.”
Throwing her hat into the ring
Lilly’s little shop had a prime location in the theater district, next to Reuben’s restaurant (yes, as in Reuben sandwich). Actresses would dine at Reuben’s, then wander next door to shop for hats.
It’s hard for us, these days, to understand that generation’s intricate and crucial relationship between a woman and her hat. That society’s apparel rules were strictly constructed and fearfully obeyed—and those rules dictated that you simply did NOT appear in public in daytime without a hat. (Heads up: When you watch pre-Code or other early movies and a woman is wandering around town without her hat, it’s a signal to those audiences that something is off-kilter or terribly wrong.)
Hats were *so* critical to sartorial success in the 1920s, every woman prided herself on having “a little hatmaker.” If she was generous, she shared the name with a select group of friends. Hence, word-of-mouth, along with an impeccable product, created Lilly’s swift success. Many hats were bought by woman vying for attention and status, but most of the costly ones were bought by men for their girlfriends or mistresses. Fine-quality hats, with costly jewelry and draping furs, were a woman’s (and her provider’s) status symbols, and wearing a Lilly Daché hat informed the world that you had arrived.
A few feathers in her cap
Marion Davies was Lilly’s first Hollywood celebrity customer (that’s her, above and below).
Lilly had no idea who the pretty blonde was, nor the adoring older gentleman paying the bill, but Marion must have been pleased, for a steady stream of “name” customers soon found their way to Lilly’s shop.
“Sylvia Sidney, with her sweet child’s face and beautiful big eyes, was another early customer,” Lilly recalled.
“Joan Crawford…seemed the idea of a million young girls across the country…
“They imitated her walk, her smile, her hairdo, her hats, and the way she wore her lipstick.”
“I was very careful what I sold to Joan Crawford,” reports Lilly, “for I knew that each hat would be the pattern for a million copies.”
Lilly shares some delicious memories about a nearly forgotten beauty, Dolores Del Rio.
“Always she came in like a small cyclone, so great was her vivacity and that sort of electric charge she seemed to carry.”
“(She) was one of the great beauties of Hollywood, I have always thought.”
“Always she will be beautiful, so long as there is breath in her body and a sparkle in her eye. She has also that rare quality of elegance, which many seek but few find. …it is a quality that lends distinction to anything she wears and gives to the dress or the hat a part of her own personality.”
“Jean Harlow, the beautiful platinum blonde, was another glamour figure of the teeming twenties.”
“Norma Shearer…a quiet, rather shy-seeming person, modest, unassuming, and very careful about getting just the right line and color.”
She did not buy on impulse, as did many of the stars, but studied each hat long and well, and asked for my opinion on which was most becoming. She seemed genuine, and always a lady.”
Greta Garbo came to Lilly for soft, simple berets and languid felt slouch hats, favoring and wearing the berets even after her retirement. A recent auction of Garbo’s belongings included Daché hatboxes, still standing guard over cherished millinery.
“My favorite, I think, of all my early customers was Mary Pickford, who first came in with her sister, Lottie. I know why they called her “America’s Sweetheart.” The term fits her. Her sweetness is not just reserved for the screen. She always was, and still is, a naturally kind and thoughtful person. She has been a customer for 20 years and I hope she will continue for 20 more.”
“The first time she came into my shop–the one of 82 Street and Broadway–no work was done in my workroom the rest of the afternoon. When word spread that Mary Pickford herself was there, the milliners had to see her. They gathered in the doorway..until one got up the courage to ask me if I could ask Miss Pickford for her autograph. But I did not have to ask her. She heard, and smiled, and said, “But of course!” Then she said she would like to meet all the girls, who helped make such beautiful hats. They came in and clustered around her, and wanted to touch her. Later, she sent to many of them an autographed picture.”
“Now, after twenty years, whenever she comes in for hats, she always asks to see the girls, and many are the same that met her for that first time the day so long ago in my Broadway shop. She sends postal cards to many of them…Mary Pickford is the special celebrity of my workroom milliners. They consider her their property.”
“And that, I guess, is the feeling she gave to everyone who used to see her on the screen. That is why each person felt a kind of kinship to her. That is why she was a great star, and why she still is a great person. You may have your great prima donnas, your temperamental geniuses. Give me a Mary Pickford every time. ”
The Banton connection
Isn’t it great to have friends in high places? One of Lilly’s pals was Travis Banton, one of the brightest and best costumers in Thirties Hollywood’s. Travis introduced Lilly to Carole Lombard on set, during one of Lilly’s increasingly frequent trips to Hollywood.
Lilly had sent Carole many hats for personal and films, but had never met her. When Carole met Lilly, she impulsively flung her arms around the tiny Frenchwoman, exclaiming “Now I know why I have always liked the hats you sent me—I like the way you look!”
Travis was also responsible for the long-standing collaboration between Marlene Dietrich and Lilly (to be honest, everyone who worked with Marlene was in for a team effort. Marlene knew what she knew about her looks, work, and self).
Typically, Lilly would receive sketches hot off Banton’s designing table, create complementary hats, then ship them off to Hollywood for Marlene’s review and approval.
The crowning jewel of the Banton-Dache-Dietrich collaboration in Lilly’s eyes, though, were the hats she created for Desire (1936).
“It was for this picture I made all those hats with wrapped scarf effects, the wimples, and such, which became the rage of the next season, and are still going strong (in 1946).”
It was just another day at the office for Lilly’s staff to create 50 hats for one film…then make duplicates for Marlene to wear on publicity tours!
Casting call for celeb chapeaux
Lilly’s celeb client list reads like a Hollywood Who’s Who:
Petite, powerful Gloria Swanson was a longtime Daché client–and fearless in fashion.
The eternally glamorous Loretta Young (who loved Daché hats so much that she purchased the remaining stock when Daché closed shop in the 1960’s). Loretta was voted “the Best Hatted Woman” by the Millinery Institute of America several years running. She was rarely seen without a hat, always perfectly keyed to her ensemble and spot on trend.
(For more pix of Loretta in fetching headgear, click here.) She even commissioned Lilly to create a christening cap for her son. “A gift of a diamond necklace could not have made Loretta happier, said Lilly. “She said it was not every baby who started life with a Daché hat—especially a baby boy. It was better, she said, than being born with a silver spoon in the mouth.” (Photo of Loretta’s son Chris in Dache cap at his christening with godmother Mrs. John Wayne and godfather, Dr. Francis Griffith, husband of Irene Dunne. Thank you to Linda Lewis, Loretta’s daughter-in-law for scanning this rare family photo exclusively for this feature. Hugs, Linda!)
Lilly reports that Roz Russell comes dashing into her shop every so often saying ‘I’m fed up with being the intellectual type. Now I’m going in for pure gla-moor. Shoot the works, pal! This time I want something for the boys!” But in spite of all this, Lilly avers, “She always chooses simple, tailored hats. It takes a day’s sales talk to get her into a dressy one.”
Lilly’s hats for other stars, other films, set trends and established icons. Her wackadoodle turbans for the marvelous Carmen Miranda were a joy to both creator and wearer.
“Never have I had so much pleasure at my business. Usually, I have to restrain myself a little. But with Carmen, the more fantastic fruits and birds and strange beads I could get together on one turban, the better.”
“She is one who is not extinguished by decoration, so vivid and vital she is. I put 42 pieces of jewelry on her for one scene and it was not too much.”
British beauty and Hitchcock blonde, Madeleine Carroll, was one of Lilly’s special favorites. Lilly heralds Madeleine as “not only beautiful, (but) a real and genuine person, unselfish and brave.”
Madeleine was so affected by the horrors of WWII she enrolled immediately in Red Cross work, but wasn’t satisfied with that level of involvement. She gave up her flourishing film career for fulltime Red Cross work, going overseas as a hospital train nurse helping comfort and cheer wounded soldiers as they transported from the front lines. Still not enough for the indefatigable Madeleine. She eventually opened her own country home near Paris to French war orphans, adopting over 200 children to care for them. Lilly’s admiration for this gallant and gorgeous client knew no bounds.
Shirley Temple was a Lilly client from her ringlet days to her teen films.
Vivacious international star Maria Montez (possibly best known as the Cobra Woman in a series of lively if improbable technicolor action flicks) loved her Lillys so much, she created a scene at Chicago’s Union Station when she discovered 2 of her 8 Daché hatboxes were missing. (Note, her total luggage count was 21.)
Never mind that she was being reunited with her medal-strewn soldier-husband whom she hadn’t seen for a year–Maria had bigger fish to fry. “I want my Daché hats!” she stormed after briefly smiling for the photographers.
Ann Sheridan, says Lilly, “can wear any type of hat, sophisticated or ingénue, and to each she imparts something extra, of her own personality.”
Dorothy Lamour relied on Lilly for everything from snoods to elegant toppers.
Anita Louise, a name rarely heard these days, gave her outfits zip with Lilly’s hats.
Feuding sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were both customers,
…but probably didn’t arrive at the house of Daché together. Here’s a lovely and lamentably rare picture of them together, both wearing Daché hats.
Celeste Holm loved and wore Lilly’s hats with her characteristic flair.
Lilyan Tashman was on Lilly’s heroine list, too. This now-forgotten actress (a longtime lover of Greta Garbo’s) was lionized by Lilly for her courageous attitude in the face of incurable and painful cancer. Criticized for being a vain, flighty creature, few knew Lilyan’s health struggles.
Lilly admired Lilyan for never lowering her standards. The actress once confided to Lilly “Don’t ever let life get you down. The world only knows what it sees. Let it always see you smiling. That’s my motto. Nobody will ever see me except at my best.”
Those pesky dreams
Lilly’s sales book was crammed with celebs, her name was synonymous with milliner, contemporary pop references to her abounded–but that wasn’t enough for her.
Lilly’s influence and empire continued to grow…
But it’s enough for this post, as it’s getting as elaborate as a Carmen Miranda turban…I’m putting a (hat) pin in this discussion and will certainly revisit Hollywood’s mad hatter for more inspiration at a later date.
But for now, let’s top things off with a wonderful Lilly quote. After she’d reached the pinnacle of success and even found her Prince Charming, Lilly wasn’t content. Nope, she averred, that’s the way it works (at least for creative geniuses and business moguls like Mme Daché).
“New dreams kept coming up to bother me. This I have found always happens. When one dream comes true, there is another right behind it, to make you discontented with your lot, to make you plan new plans and build new sky castles.”
BONUS: For a really adorable trip down Memory Lane (and a glimpse at surely le plus chic game show ever), watch this You Tube visit with Lilly on “What’s My Line?)
This blog post is proudly part of the 2013 Fashion in Film Blogathon. Thanks Hollywood Revue, for hosting this epic gathering of beauty as depicted on our beloved Silver Screen.