Rosie Boylan was interviewed by Siobhan Toohill in September 2013.
SIOBHAN: Tonight on Out The Front we're thrilled to be joined by Rosie Boylan. Rosie is a headwear specialist or milliner for fashion, television, stage and screen and Rosie undertakes diverse commercial commissions. She also designs and creates contemporary street and casual hats for men and women which she sells from her studio store in Newtown on Australia Street. You will have seen Rosie's work. She made the hats for The Great Gatsby. Rosie, welcome.
ROSIE: Thanks, Siobhan, thank you.
SIOBHAN: Rosie how do you describe what you do?
ROSIE: I think primarily in my stage and screen work I interpret character through headwear. I suppose in the street wear that I do in my shop, again, it's about looking at the person and seeing who they are and what will suit them. I also make hats.
SIOBHAN: When you talk about headwear it's all kinds of different kinds of pieces.
ROSIE: All kinds of headwear. Yeah, look I suppose I'll clear it up early on; a lot of people who do what I do are called a milliner and I do call myself a milliner but in the scope of the work that I've done over the years I do more than that of the milliner.
The milliner traditionally is someone who makes women's hats and a hat maker is traditionally someone who makes men's hats. But I call myself a headwear specialist because sometimes I might be doing jobs that are related to industry or to sport or to performance or to medical or ... I apply my skills to all strands of industry and culture and population.
SIOBHAN: Tell me a bit about some of those industry pieces of headwear that you've made.
ROSIE: Quite recently I had a surgeon come in. He was a surgeon of baby's hearts and he wanted some headwear to wear in surgery. So I selected an interesting range of soft colours and created him some pieces that he could wear pretty much to the style of hat that he already had but just made a point of difference for him in his uniform attire in surgery.
SIOBHAN: Are there many people working in this field at the moment? Millinery has had a long tradition but where do you see this kind of moving at the moment and is there a lot of people working in this space with you at the moment?
ROSIE: Well, interestingly I went to an international milliners’ forum in Wagga in 2012 and I was amazed at how many new people there are making hats. There's a lot of rural women who like to make hats and they wear their hats to the races and I think it's kind of a craft at the moment that is very much in vogue because it's something that someone can make. It's an expression of the self and it's something they can also wear and I think for a lot of women it's a point of escapism from their regular lives. They can dress up and go to the races and have a special day out in their fancy hat. But I don't do that sort of work. I used to do that in the 1980s but I've kind of moved into different areas of hat making.
SIOBHAN: There does seem to be this kind of real resurgence in craft and you know making things and you know the whole kind of hipster thing about stitch and bitch; why do you think that's the case and I guess I'm interested also around it's very kind of associated with kind of women and this idea of coming out of the 1950s when women kind of were linked to their kitchens and living rooms and we've kind of evolved from that and now we're kind of going back there?
Do you think there's, what do you think, why are we doing this? Why are we moving back to the craft of making things?
ROSIE: Well, I think people like to use their hands primarily and I, part of my work practice every day, I pick up a needle and I sew and if I don't do that then I can get quite ratty and I know how to settle myself and that's to thread a needle and just do some sewing.
I think people are wanting to reconnect with handmade things. I resent a little bit the fact that it's crafty whereas in fact for me it's a profession and I've kind of held on to it and kind of fought for it to be my livelihood and other people are just doing it for fun. But I shouldn't resent that.
SIOBHAN: Tell me about the difference; at what point does it become professional?
ROSIE: I suppose when you're being paid, when you're making your living from it rather than it being something that you do as a hobby which I think a lot of craft is for a lot of people now.
SIOBHAN: You've made hats or headwear pieces for all sorts of realms and in particular film. Tell me, what was it like making hats, or head pieces, for The Great Gatsby?
ROSIE: That was a particularly demanding project and it really did draw on my thirty years of experience of hat making to pull off. So you're making hats for principles, which is very detailed and specific, and then you're making hats for extras which is about mass production. You're working with a team of people who are making. You're working with teams of people who are fitting costumes and hats. You're working down on set, checking that people are wearing their hats properly.
You're dealing with industry and ordering hats. You're in fittings. You're all over the place and you're just having to keep one step ahead of the pack.
SIOBHAN: To what extent do you take a brief from a creative director and to what extent are you leading the creativity around these pieces that you make?
ROSIE: It's very collaborative and it does depend. Formerly it's the costume designer who would give you the brief. Some of them are very happy to kind of give you free reign; others want to have an involvement. So yeah it does depend.
SIOBHAN: What do you prefer?
ROSIE: I prefer to have a little bit of guidance and then kind of be left to it. And I think there's a difference between making costumes to making hats. You can draw a picture of a costume on a page, or these days it's Photoshop, it's a two dimensional image that then has to be turned into a three dimensional object.
But there's something about a hat that just evolves or grows and that is a relationship that really only sits with the milliner. Like you can be briefed on it but there is an organic process to it which you don't actually have control of as much as costumes somehow. Well, that's what I like to think. So, it kind of has to come through you.
SIOBHAN: You've also made hats or head pieces for theatre. What have been some of your favourite theatre opportunities?
ROSIE: Quite a definitive one for me was in 1990 was working on Phantom of The Opera and that was working with an English designer, Maria Bjornson, who was a very famous English designer who's since died. It was a very exciting journey into a very rich Victorian world and I remember at the time we were making that production and I think we exhausted the world's supply of Victorian jet. We were cutting up the most exotic materials from all kinds of antique dealers and it was actually quite challenging to destroy these things and turn them into other pieces. But I think that was a definitive production that really in a way was my training ground for the more detailed pieces that are required for film.
Some other greats have been big crazy headpieces, I wish I could actually remember now in a thirty year career. I remember working with Jenny Kee at the Sydney Olympics making great big Frieda Kahlo headpieces or cockatoo headpieces or penises and vaginas. All kinds of crazy theatrical pieces – a whole set of Arnott’s biscuits which were big headpieces. Actually one of the first jobs I ever did was to make a whole set of champagne glasses which were taller than your hands could reach with stars falling out of them. That was a real challenge for a young milliner but anyway, I pulled it off.
SIOBHAN: And what's it like now when you've made one of these incredible creations and it's that point when you sort of hand it over. Is it sort of like saying goodbye to something or is it about seeing it kind of birth into something new?
ROSIE: Well, I think the longer I've been making hats, the more I realise I like hats to happen quickly and that's possibly because I've worked a lot on a lot of hats that have taken a long time to make and I actually really enjoy the hat to have a freshness and a freeness and for it to be conceived and evolved and move on quickly. And I think that's why I like working in film because some days you've just got to pull it out of nowhere and I think I really like that challenge.
I think that's also why I'm now making hats for the public because they're quite simple and streamlined and they’re quite easy to make and I like the idea of them having that simplicity. I still do make very complex things but there's something about the creative spirit and I like it being quick.
SIOBHAN: Tell me a bit more about your shop in Newtown. So at one end here you're working on these incredible kinds of film projects or theatrical projects but then you are making hats for everyday people who come into your shop. Tell me a bit about that experience of making and selling hats to the public.
ROSIE: Yeah okay well I did a tour of the world because I got a Churchill fellowship to study hat design and I went to a lot of different museums. I looked at hats that were from the early 20th Century and I was really astounded at how freely they'd been made and then I reflected on the institutions like TAFE that teach hat making and I actually analysed the way that the craft had evolved through the 20th Century and I reflected on the way the 1960s’ hats were made. They were very structured and very tight and that's when hats stopped being made in fashion and I think that was the style of hat making that then morphed into the teaching practices in those kinds of institutions.
So I decided that I wanted to get away from that very formal, tortured kind of hat making and go back to a simplicity, to a kind of a very simple style. So in a way it's like I've cleared the deck and I've gone back to making hats that are absolutely basic and simple and what people do actually want to wear with their regular clothing and maybe in a way they'll start getting more complex again.
SIOBHAN: How did you end up doing the work that you do? Did you decide at one point that you were going to make hats or is it just something that you fell into? How did you learn your craft?
ROSIE: I fell into it. I was doing a course in Adelaide in backstage theatre learning about props and sound and lights and costumes and hat making was one of the subjects. I made this blue hat and I just remember it kind of just it grew out of my lap. There was an incredible natural energy that came out of it and I remember being quite shocked by it myself and I really liked it and I just liked that fact that I was making things in my lap and I was using my hands and it was just natural for me.
I had worked a lot in theatre in the early in probably the first decade of my hat making and that's where I got to really cut my teeth on a huge variety of things like the champagne glass headpieces but also lots of things in felt and straw and theatrical kinds of inventions.
I trained with a range of people but I did get an Australian Council grant to train with the doyenne of hats in Sydney with a woman called Betty Visam and she had been a couture milliner for a leading Sydney fashion millinery shop and she took me under her wing and trained me along with another milliner called Neil Grigg.
She was in her eighties and there was this incredible sense that she had decided that we were the two people that she was going to reveal her secrets to and we just had to absorb as much as we possibly could and her voice still comes back to me now when I might think now how what would Betty do here? And I'd just wait and eventually it comes to me what to do.
So I think she was really my main teacher. Other people have been along the way but then it's kind of an intuitive thing as well; you have to find your own way and when you work in theatre and film you're always presented with something that you’ve never done before and you've got to resolve it and have it made and finished in a number of hours so you just have to think well if I can't do this then who is better positioned to do it? And you have to just have the confidence in yourself that you'll do it and you'll get it right.
SIOBHAN: And so you started in theatre and film and then moved into hats.
SIOBHAN: How did you even move into theatre and film?
ROSIE: Well, because my career started in theatre in South Australia under Jim Sharman and Lighthouse and so I worked in theatre for about ten years and then that's when I morphed into film and I suppose I mentioned to you Phantom of The Opera, well that was a perfect training ground to then go on to do Moulin Rouge which was the first of the big Bazmark Films here in Sydney.
But before then I did the movie The Piano and then in fact my first film which was The Piano I was very pregnant and this woman came to me and wanted bonnets and I made these bonnets and it wasn't until a number of months later that I went to the movies and I saw these enormous bonnets on screen like they were you know metres across and I thought "Wow, this is how big hats can be on screen." That was so exciting because I thought "Wow, there's a real opportunity for people to really see your work."
SIOBHAN: And what is it like when you see your hats in the wild?
ROSIE: In the wild?
SIOBHAN: You know when you're walking down the street or catching a film or seeing a play and all of a sudden you see one of your creations?
ROSIE: Well, it's funny because in Newtown sometimes I see these hats and I think, "Oh, that's such a good hat." And I'm really cranky that it's on my turf and then I get closer and I see that it's one of mine and I'm really delighted because I think "Oh, that's such a good hat. I like that hat and why isn't it my hat?" But then it has been so that's nice.
SIOBHAN: You talked about your first hat which was the blue hat; do you still have that hat?
ROSIE: No I don't but I do have another hat which I made very early on. It’s a tiger felt and it's in the corner in my work room and I have it hidden behind the glass door but so many clients want to get behind that glass door and put that hat on. No-one's getting it. It's just something that I've had for ever and ever and it's cute.
SIOBHAN: Do you have a favourite piece that you've worked on that will always stay in your mind as something that was particularly challenging or memorable?
ROSIE: No, I don't think so. There's been thousands and thousands of them so no there are memorable pieces but I couldn't say I'm holding on to any one in particular.
SIOBHAN: You've also done some work with women in Papua New Guinea around weaving and making hats. Tell me a bit about the work that you've been doing there.
ROSIE: Well, I was in Ecuador in about 1990 and I went over there to look at the Panama hat industry, in fact I was importing Panama hats. I became really aware that there were all these people who had weaving as part of their culture tradition and a lot of them wove baskets or weaved hats and they just pick up fibres that are in their environment and turn them into objects of utility and then can just throw them on the ground and they will decompose and you know life, it seems fairly simple.
So then I've been wanting to pick that thread up and now in the last year I've made connections with a number of communities in the Pacific in Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Cook Islands, New Zealand working with different communities and different fibres and wanting to develop pathways of trade for people living in remote communities to create headwear that can be marketed into the Australian marketplace.
Often my experience has been that people are great weavers but they are not necessarily good hat makers so I've been working with different individuals to develop their skills at making a better product that can then be marketed and promoted, represents their community and provides an opportunity for them to find a marketplace beyond their own communities and they're using fibres that are growing where they live and I think it's a great message to us as urban dwellers to use a product that someone has made from the resources from within their own environment.
SIOBHAN: What drew you to do this work that you're doing in the Pacific? What was the moment that led you to embark on this?
ROSIE: I've kind of always known that that was coming. I kind of knew that down the track there would be this connection with the Pacific. It's not moving fast, I might say, but then I suppose I'm not in a huge hurry and I think it will be really rewarding and the Pacific Island Trade and Investment Commission work across the Pacific and have offices all around the world and are involved in the promotion of trade through the Pacific so I'm working with their cultural officer and we are currently working with two different women in Papua New Guinea; one who works in tapa cloth and one who works in I think it's Hibiscus fibre to develop a range of hats that can be sold in Sydney.
SIOBHAN: You’ve talked about how you learnt your skills and how you’ve worked with other people and obviously you know the exchange that you now have with these women in the Pacific, how do you then pass on your skills onto the next generation; do you have a focus on developing others to have similar sorts of skills around hat making, millinery?
ROSIE: Traditionally a milliner did an apprenticeship and it was a five year apprenticeship but that kind of era has well and truly passed and my business is patchy and I couldn't really have an apprentice full time so I do teach and I have been teaching for probably twenty years at various institutions around Sydney and students love making hats but some of the young people just want the glory of being around famous people. They don't actually want to have to do the hard work of learning a craft because learning a craft does require a commitment, kind of a long term commitment to get really good at what you're doing.
So I do teach and you know probably down the line I might do some more one-on-one teaching with particular people who rise at the right time for me to do that but it doesn't feel like that time is now to focus on individuals. I think it's more spreading it, spreading the message further at this point perhaps with not as much detail but more about fairly simple skills being imparted and perhaps getting some equipment and tools and generally putting some energy back into the whole headwear industry which really ground to a halt in the '70s after people stopped wearing hats in the 1960s as a result of cultural changes after the war.
SIOBHAN: Why do you think that's the case? You know when I talk to my mum she talks about you know as a child she always wore a hat particularly on Sundays and hat wearing was just very much part of society and then we've gone through a phase where actually we really don't wear hats. I mean kids are starting to wear hats now because of the sun but it's not part of what we ordinarily do. Why has it changed?
ROSIE: Well it was interesting when I was on the Churchill Fellowship. I went to the Churchill Museum and there was a movie showing Churchill's funeral in London on The Thames and it was such a formal affair and all of these dignitaries were in top hats but it was really interesting to see that most of the audience were hat-less and I think this was about 1963 and it was to do with I think coming out of the war and people not wanting to dress so formally. It was the Cultural Revolution. It was the Pope saying that Catholics didn't have to wear hats and I think it was also Kennedy appeared once without a hat and that kind of was the beginning of that whole sartorial change of people not wearing, having to wear hats.
But I think young people are really rediscovering the hat as a way of identifying their own personality and character that sets them apart from others and I think that's a great thing. So I think people are wearing hats not only for weather protection but also for personal style.
SIOBHAN: How do you see your purpose? You know how would you describe that?
ROSIE: I sometimes question that, particularly in the afternoon when I look up and the sun is reflecting off the Newtown courthouse because I'm opposite there and there's a sense of the day passing and I've been in my work room and I look up and I think, "Mm my life is passing by and I'm still making hats."
I'm happy doing it. I enjoy it but I kind of hear the sounds of the world around me and I think "Mm gee is this enough to be doing it?" But it just is what I'm doing. I get up every day and I do have purpose and I do make hats every day and I'm happy and I enjoy it.
I think the thing that's most pleasurable for me is seeing either a shop client or an actor or whoever it is that I'm making the hat for, they put the hat on and you see their character or their personality really shine and you know that you’ve really had a success when that happens.
SIOBHAN: Well thank you Rosie for sharing with us your personality, and what it means to you making hats. I think the life that you bring to our corner of Newtown is really exciting and delightful and a wonderful part of the place in which we live.
ROSIE: Thank you Siobhan.
Interview: Siobhan Toohill
Photography: Dean Sewell / Oculi
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Charlotte Jones
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews