Rebecca Hanley – On Spring Racing Season

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Coming into the spring racing season, I thought it pertinent to speak to milliner and Rainbow Flats resident Rebecca Hanley, who has been busily creating fascinators and unique hats for women to adorn themselves with at race meets and special occasions.


Initially self-taught, Rebecca was determined to gain formal qualifications and in 2011 completed an Accreditation in Certificate 2 Millinery at Newcastle TAFE. At the time Rebecca undertook her studies, she had two young children, aged 18 months and three, in tow …

Millinery is quite a niche profession.What inspired your interest to become a milliner?

Hats have always been a part of my life, whether keeping me warm in winter or out of the hot sun in summer, but my real interest in millinery began around seven years ago. I was attending a big race day in Newcastle and had the perfect dress, but just couldn’t find the right hat.

I have always been very creative, making my own jewellery and generally having a go at anything artistic. I decided to create my own headwear; I fumbled through a few fabric and craft stores finding a range of materials I thought would come together nicely.

I dragged out Granny’s old Singer sewing machine and began to create my very first Whimsy (fascinator). The final creation was simple, but worked nicely with my dress. I received many compliments on my headwear at the track and noticed so many wonderful millinery creations among the other women attending. It was the first time I looked at headwear from a fashion and design point of view.

What are some of the secrets to constructing a hat, treating the fabric and creating different types of trimming?

Whether a simple whimsy or detailed hand-felted winter cloche, the headwear always starts with a design idea. Then I decide on the right style block; all hats are blocked (shaped) over timber millinery hat blocks. I have in the past though, used lampshades, bowls and even laundry baskets to shape my pieces.

Fabric choice is often reflected by the season. Spring usually inspires light fabrics, like straw, sinamay and tulle; whereas, in winter I use heavier materials like felt and wool fabric. Much of the straw and sinamay used I hand dye, along with any other materials that will be used within the piece. I make most of my own trimmings, including shaped fabric flowers, wired twists, rolled edge petals, folded ribbon origami and silk flowers, just to name a few.

Many hours work go into making silk flowers; each flower has to have the fabric dyed, treated, cut to shape and then hand tooled. The effort is well worth it for the quality I achieve compared to store brought flowers.

The Balmoral, Pillbox, Boater, Cloche, Cowboy, Fez, Top Hat, Shpitzel, Fedora … which types of hats have inspired your work?

I would say the Cloche is one that I have drawn upon for its classic style and versatility. A Cloche can be made from felt to keep you warm while looking trendy, or from sinamay for a light classic spring hat.

Many of the hats and whimsys I made before undertaking study were not based on any one particular shape or style; they came from a place of complete creative freedom. I had no true millinery skills; I was just sculpting, manipulating and twisting fabrics into shapes I liked, then sewing them together. Many of these pieces still now are some of my favourites.

Throughout the ages of millinery, movie stars can be attributed for making particular hats iconic, such as ‘Jackie O’ and the Pillbox … do you have a dream creation you’d like to make for a modern-day movie star?

Maybe not a movie star, but definitely an Aussie celebrity. I’ve thought about making an amazing hat and sending it off to one of our A-list Australian celebrities … the ultimate though, would be to design a hat for the Queen of Australian Racing, Gai Waterhouse. Her style is classic and sophisticated, and I would love to see her trackside wearing one of my creations.

How much of your own personality is injected into each creation, or does each piece solely reflect the unique personality of the wearer (and do you spend time getting to know a client’s personality in order to reflect this in the hat)?

I would say it’s a combination of both. I’ve been very lucky to have had a lot of freedom in my designs with many of my clients so far. Some will come to me and say, “As long as it’s red, I’ll like it”. Others, I offer some design ideas, and we work from there.

I think key points are always working to style a hat or headpiece that will complement both the wearer and the outfit it is to be worn with. I always ask for a photo of the outfit my client is going to be wearing, and it’s nice to get a feel for their personality.

Do you care to enter the discussion regarding Princess Beatrice’s royal wedding hat, which took the viral crown on commentary (not much of it positive)?

The design of her headpiece is not one I would ever consider wearing, but everyone has his or her own style, and this is what makes fashion interesting. Secondly, though the hat was not to everyone’s liking, the workmanship of milliner Philip Treacy who created it is some of the best the millinery world has to offer. I admired the piece for the exquisite way in which it was made.

Fabric covered structural hats like the princesses’ are incredibly hard to make, and I imagine even for a master milliner of such standard still took many hours work. So I suppose I look at it slightly differently from the perspective of a fellow aspiring milliner. I could only hope that I one day could make a hat with such skill.

Milliner Jane Lambert has had the edge in the Eastern Suburbs hat parade for many years now … is this a position you covet?

Jane Lambert certainly has made her mark in the millinery industry and is the level of milliner I aspire to be. I admire her work and what she has done to bring hats back into the limelight.

Every year she is mentioned around the Melbourne Spring Carnival season, along with the likes of Philip Treacy, Louise MacDonald and Richard Nylon – they set the standard for hats at the carnival. I think for any milliner, being a part of the fashions of the Melbourne Spring Carnival is the ultimate goal.

How can people find out more about your work or purchase one of your unique creations? 

I have a website which gives you a little look into what I do, as well as a page dedicated to photographs of my work. People can contact me via my website or call me during business hours Monday to Friday, on 0433 623 670. Happy hat wearing!

Thank you Rebecca. 

Interview by Karen Farrell.

This story was published in issue 67 of the Manning-Great Lakes Focus

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