Acclaimed milliner, Rosie Boylan explains her unique process of creating hats for film and fashion, without distracting from the people wearing them.
Rosie Boylan in her studio
The less fashion-conscious among us might be oblivious to the statements a hat can make about its wearer, but that certainly doesn’t diminish their effect.
According to Sydney milliner Rosie Boylan, sometimes the greatest compliment someone can make about a hat is the fact they haven’t registered seeing it.
“Often the best hats are the ones that go unnoticed because they complement the features of the wearer rather than distract the viewer’s gaze,” says Boylan. “I’m very responsive to the client's physicality and energy as I work from the perspective of personality rather than being style-driven. It’s an intuitive reading of their whole aura that gives me the cue to vision what’s right for them.”
While she tends not to dabble in the sartorial extremes of race-day fascinators in her popular Newtown store, Boylan’s creations have by no means gone unnoticed by the broader public. Over the past three decades as an in-demand hat-maker, she’s left a lasting impact in the film industry with her work adorning the heads of Hollywood heavyweights in dozens of films including The Piano, The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge.
As a university arts student, however, a career in what was historically a very traditional women’s vocation wasn’t initially what Boylan had in mind.
“I was training in backstage theatre crafts and hat-making was one of the electives that just came so very naturally, the hat forming in my lap, and I found I really enjoyed it.”
Often the arrival hat features strongly at the very beginning of a storyline. Before the performer even opens their mouth, they’re making a visual presence."
After working on character headpieces in major theatrical productions including Cats, Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, Boylan’s entry to the world of film was in creating some memorable recreations of 19th-century fashion in Jane Campion’s 1993 film, The Piano.
In one of the opening scenes, the principal characters played by Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin arrive on a stormy New Zealand beach wearing ornate bonnets Boylan had been commissioned to create by costume designer Janet Patterson. This strange juxtaposition provided one of the most striking images of a film that would go on to win three Oscars, including for both female lead actresses.
Nicole Kidman in a feature film - Baz Lurhmann's Australia 2007. Credit: Bazmark Films
“When it came out into the cinemas, I went along and saw the absolute momentous scale of the headwear on the screen, framing the faces of these Victorian women,” Boylan says. “For the first time, I saw how film was an incredible platform to showcase my work and an opportunity to collaborate with costume designers to conceive strong character looks.” Aside from an enduring dedication to perfecting her craft, it’s this enthusiasm for collaboration that Boylan believes has led to much of her success. One of Boylan’s frequent collaborators is costume designer Catherine Martin, and her stunning work on the Baz Luhrmann films Moulin Rouge, Australia and The Great Gatsby has garnered several nominations and three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design.
In much the same way Boylan prefers an understated approach to the headwear she creates, she has an innate understanding of not distracting the audience when creating the hats that represent characters on stage and screen.
“Often the arrival hat features strongly at the very beginning of a storyline. Before the performer even opens their mouth, they’re making a visual presence, so it's important the visual messaging is on key with the character, their status and their place within the story.”
While there’s certainly an immense responsibility in representing the millinery masters of a bygone era in period films, Boylan says it is also important to balance the expectations of a modern audience, so they’re not needlessly distracted by jarring differences in period fashions. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway looks up at a Manhattan skyscraper from a sea of men wearing skimmer hats, before a kaleidoscope of elaborate Roaring Twenties headpieces adorn partygoers at Gatsby’s mansion – showcasing the extraordinary scope of Boylan’s contribution to the story.
“Developing principle character looks for film can take some time as costume designers have a view on how they should look and often many styles are trialled to select the right approach. I immerse myself in the storyline and the era to imagine who the characters might be. Once I enter the stylistic world from where I can play, fabrication is the next step. Playing with fibre options and refining styles in costume fittings with the costume designer and the performer consolidates the creative pathway.”
In my designs, I’m able to blend traditional hat-making skills along with my unique and honed processes which lend an eye for fine materials, good line and a sense of person and place.”
If the hat fits…
Favouring functionality and form in her contemporary fashion collaborations with design houses such as sass & bide and Macgraw, Boylan also strives to complement the unique style of customers with the bespoke headwear she designs and fits personally at her studio. She’s seen ebbs and flows in fashion over the years, but says there’s a growing appreciation of hats as a stalwart of both style and status for younger generations.
“I think hats are very much in our psyche as they're symbolic of culture and identity. With the casualisation of dress that happened in the 1960s, the hat still provides a moment of self-expression and has the power to transform the look of a person. In my designs, I’m able to blend traditional hat-making skills along with my unique and honed processes which lend an eye for fine materials, good line and a sense of person and place.”
With such a broad cache of experience across multiple disciplines, Boylan is passionate about sharing her knowledge, particularly with indigenous craftspeople. After many years of working with weavers around the Pacific to source materials and share her expertise on creating export-ready products, Boylan was invited to Papua New Guinea in 2015 to teach workshops to bilum (string bag) weavers as part of a United Nations initiative focused on trade development.
Rosie skill sharing with PNG bilum weavers
“It's about cross cultural collaborations. At this point in my career, I can share and align my skills with traditional artisanal weavers to create innovative products and export pathways for these women.”
Across such a wide array of fields, Boylan has used the traditional craft of hat-making to traverse the broad spectrum from entertainment to fashion and everything in between. Whether that’s creating cockatoo headdresses for the Olympic Games opening ceremony or working on headwear for Ridley Scott’s latest science-fiction epic, Alien: Covenant, Boylan says she’s always preferred to turn to the sun and see where the work takes her.
“It’s a simple three-letter word – hat. Whether that’s in film, in streetwear or in the work I do with women in the Pacific, hats are ubiquitous across all cultures. I have a great sense of ownership of my craft, and I'm able to morph my skills into any direction that I wish to go.”
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