Christian Dior's Milliner, Stephen Jones, Speaks Out On His Most Memorable Designs
Be it Princess Diana’s delicate fascinators or the towering feather crowns seen in Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway shows, many of the most fantastic hats created over the last several decades have one thing in common: they were made by a bald-headed man with a slanted grin, most often seen sporting a curiously askew hat and always with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
This month, British milliner Stephen Jones celebrates the launch of a 240-page book, Dior Hats: From Stephen Jones to Christian Dior, published by Rizzoli, which documents his work for the house of Christian Dior alongside designs by Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré and Christian Dior himself. With photographs by Sølve Sundsbø and text from fashion critics and historians, the book is a testament to Jones’s legacy and his ability to modernise an age-old accessory over the decades.
“When I was growing up in the Sixties, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” says the 63-year-old designer. “I wanted to be an astronaut—that was every little boy’s dream back then. I just didn’t want to be an engineer like my father. In the end, I realised: I am an engineer.”
Indeed, Jones’s hats can’t always strictly be called hats. Some are feats of dexterity, serving more as sculptures that sit atop heads, or frames for faces, as they often do in the case of the couture collections of Christian Dior, where Jones has worked as a collaborator since 1996. And while his dream to be surrounded by stars did not necessarily come true, Jones found his inventions worn by Princess Diana, Rihanna, Madonna and Kylie Minogue, and even Queen Elizabeth II, who gave Jones an Officer of the Order of the British Empire award in 2010. It’s clear Jones never set out to be a conventional milliner. “Fashion looks right when it’s appropriate for the occasion for which it should be worn, but also fabulous and scandalous when it’s not right for the occasion and it shouldn’t be worn,” he says. “That’s maybe the part I enjoy most.”
Jones has collaborated with designers from Vivienne Westwood to Rei Kawakubo to Marc Jacobs to emerging talents like Grace Wales Bonner. Thanks to his background in ready-to-wear with a womenswear design degree from Central Saint Martins in London, Jones always worked easily with creative directors of fashion houses and has even been known to draw the line of a woman’s back and face first when crafting a new design, treating it like a finishing flourish at the end of a sentence.
The first hat Jones devised was made of his sister’s old blouse, stuck onto a Corn Flakes box and trimmed with some plastic irises that were sprayed silver and blue with Christmas paint. His fun-loving, adventurous approach has remained throughout his career, fuelled by inspiration found from unlikely sources. “If you think there is a formula, it means you are getting lazy,” he says. Inspiration can come from the colour blue or 15th-century Paraguay. But he always begins with research. “I go through my books and look at images that sometimes, even after staring at them every day for six months, you could still find something new,” he says. “I find it’s not just the image itself, but the emotion it gives you.” His favourite period to revisit is the Second World War. “During that time, people had no money, so they would invent their own versions of hats or learn to recycle.”
A hat can be seen as a reflection of its times, shapeshifting in size and form throughout the centuries, and once was a much larger part of daily life. In Victorian Britain, men were even mandated to wear hats in public, a fact that Jones references when asked what he has to say to anyone who might tell him they’re just not a hat person. “Go to a hat shop and try lots of things on!” he says. “People just aren’t used to it—remember, 100 years ago, nobody was a ‘not a hat-wearing person’, because you wouldn’t have been allowed out on the street.”
Jones was recruited to Dior by John Galliano, with whom he worked at Galliano’s eponymous house and briefly at Givenchy in the Nineties, beginning a tenure as Dior’s official milliner that has lasted 24 years. He looks back fondly on a 2006 couture show inspired by astrological signs where he forged a seahorse crown and was particularly proud of an enormous “wave” hat, one of his most famous works. “It’s made of chiffon and stiffened [in a way that] gives it a unique crinkly texture. It’s very difficult to do because it has to be moulded in three dimensions, but it’s very effective,” says Jones. Raf Simons, during his brief years at Dior, focused on Christian Dior’s legacy of inspiration from gardens, which led Jones to construct floral bonnets that rustically sprung from the models’ heads.
“Those flowers were very tiny and are extremely delicate,” he says. “They almost look like flowers from a child’s bouquet, so the manner in which they were executed was more like jewellery than working with fabric.” For the house’s current artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who prefers less formal silhouettes, Jones conceived an understated leather beret. “It was cut from lambskin, and we wanted to make sure it was symmetrical in thickness from one side to the other,” he says.
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While Dior Hats, a related exhibition that was set to open at Musée Christian Dior in Granville, France, has been postponed, Jones has kept busy this year spearheading the Royal Ascot and the British Hat Guild millinery auction in June, inviting leading British milliners to create bespoke designs featuring a rainbow theme, referencing the nation’s use of rainbows as a symbol of thanks to the National Health Service and frontline workers. Jones himself crafted a tall, twirling number of colourful ribbons that reached towards the sky, much like his ambitions.
“I hope in the future, people will have a whole hat wardrobe,” he says. “There will be hats for a Monday morning, hats for Saturday night and ones for everything in between.”