Lilly Dache’ was born in France in 1906. From a very early age she was fascinated by hats, and encouraged from the age of thirteen by an aunt, who had a millinery shop in Bordeaux. She remained in France until she was eighteen, having gained some millinery experience working for Caroline Reboux , Suzanne Talbot, and Georgette, in Paris , and then emigrated to America… with just thirteen dollars in her pocket, and a determination to make a name for herself. She arrived in New York in 1924 and managed to land herself a job in the millinery department at Macy’s . However, in a very short time she left, before she was fired, because she absolutely refused to follow shop practices of selling hats regardless of whether they suited the customer. Undeterred, she found work with a small milliner who’s premises were at the junction of 77th Street with Broadway, called the Bonnet Shop. Somehow, she managed to save almost all her wages, and with the help of the other salesgirl, bought out her employer, who’s heart was not really into hats, and was happy to sell. Lilly’s flair for millinery and her extrovert personality, combined with the location of the shop soon brought clients to her door. In the earliest days, she simply had no money available to purchase supplies, but was somehow able to persuade her customers to part with money up-front to enable her to buy the materials needed for the creations they had visualised. It was not long before she was able to buy the other girl out, leaving her in sole control.
This dark navy, shiny straw-plait hat is an example of her innovative design. Amazing what you can do with a plain cone shape ! Dache’ was famous for her draped turbans, half-hats which could be worn fore or aft, and massed flower shapes and snoods. She was one of the USA’s leading milliners between the late twenties and the fifties. This hat is probably late forties/early fifties. Lilly Dache was also responsible for the fruit-laden turbans made famous by Carmen Miranda. She was very clever at adapting Paris trends to suit the American taste. She had a flamboyant personality, and was known for wearing huge amounts of costume jewellery, and this larger than life appearance went down very well with Hollywood film stars, for whom she designed many hats. Very similar editions were then made for sale to the general public. New York was often regarded as the hat city of the world between the late thirties and the fifties, and Dache’ and Mr. John were seen as the best. Some of these editions were known as DACHETTES designed by Lilly Dache’, and this hat is a good example of the non Couture range.
She met a dashing French businessman called Jean Despres, who was working in New York, and after a fairly tempestuous courtship, married him. He expected her to give up her flourishing business, and just be a wife, and in due course a mother; but sadly there were no children, and she continued working. They made their home in the top two floors of her specially built nine storey building on East 56th Street, where she was able to combine everything under one roof…retail sales, wholesale trade, as well as workrooms and accommodation. The fitting rooms had outrageous decor, a circular room, and pink padded walls, and she insisted that customers could not just walk in off the street…they had to have an introduction ! The word went round, and people fought to get in.
By the late 1940’s, she was also producing other accessories, perfume and costume jewellery, all eagerly snapped up by celebrities such as Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, and Audrey Hepburn. She also wrote a book called ‘Talking Through My Hats’. I have just managed to obtain a copy, (good old Ebay). It makes fascinating reading, and was co-written, in 1946 with Dorothy Rowe-Lewis. LILLY DACHE is famously reported to have said…..
‘Glamour is what makes a man ask for your phone number, and a woman ask about your dressmaker.’
In it’s heyday, the business was reported to be producing about thirty thousand hats a year….it never ceases to amaze me..where have all those hats gone ?