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In fine feather

Toronto milliner David Dunkley has created hats for the Queen’s Plate and the Royal Ascot

David Dunkley studied hat making in England with Rose Cory, the late Queen Mother's personal milliner. Credit: Kristina Raimi

While the Brits may not be the arbitrators of style they believe themselves to be (I’m looking at you, Camilla), there’s no denying that they make a damn fine hat. Indeed, a quick perusal of England’s tabloids reveals a society that still considers hats de rigueur for women attending a wedding, a funeral or any other formal event.

We’re not quite so hat-obsessed here in Canada. Sure, we have our Albertan cousins in their 10-gallon tributes to John Wayne, and who among us doesn’t have a drawer brimming with an assortment of toques, balaclavas and baseball caps? But hats as a staple of style? No, not unless you count John Deere among the great fashionistas of all time.

Canadian David Dunkley could well be the catalyst to change our meagre chapeau status quo. This master milliner’s works have been shipped far and wide from his Toronto studio — quite a feat for a former bureaucrat who took up hat making on a whim. “I had my dream job, working at Queen’s Park,” Dunkley says. “I was one of the assistants to George Smitherman. When I started dating my partner-to-be, he suggested we take a course together, but the one we wanted was already full, so we took hat making.”

The course opened up a new world for Dunkley, who ultimately swapped his day job for a hat stall at the St Lawrence Market. Three years later, he opened his own store and, on a whim, sent a fan letter and pictures of his work to Rose Cory, personal hat maker to the late Queen Mother. He was flabbergasted when she responded by telephone.

“I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a prank,” he says, laughing. “She said she liked my work and invited me to come to London to study with her. I still return every year for one week.”

Under Cory’s tutelage, Dunkley continued to develop a personal style that is both classic and innovative. His work has appeared at countless weddings, as well as the Queen’s Plate and the Royal Ascot (where hats are mandatory for ladies). The elaborate “fascinators” favoured by female attendees have become an annual sightseeing event, as each tries to out-do the other in height, volume, feathers and glitz.

“Those race hats are often over-the-top,” Dunkley says. “They’re the high holidays for hats, so if you’re in the royal enclosure or any of those places, you tend to want a statement piece.”

Weddings are another place where statement hats are frequently worn. You’d have to be living under a rock not to have caught a glimpse of Princess Beatrice’s unfortunate lid at William and Kate’s nuptials in 2011. There was a veritable uproar generated by the monstrosity teetering upon Bea’s titian tresses, an outrageous confection seemingly inspired by an open lavatory seat in an unfortunate shade of dusty rose.

While much of the world giggled, Dunkley points out that milliner Philip Treacy accomplished the goal set for any public occasion. “It represented all that a good hat should,” he says. “It made a statement, it was beautifully crafted, and it looked like it had been touched by a light hand. You should never be able to look at a good headpiece and understand how it was made.”

While Dunkley deals almost entirely in his own custom and ready-to-wear designs, he did run up a few reproductions of the princess’s fascinator for display purposes. “It was incredibly challenging to make,” he says. “There was three days of sculpting and one day of sitting for eight and a half hours sewing. There were wires everywhere in that piece, but it was all invisible.”

Even in a millinery-shy country like Canada, weddings still generally put on good shows when it comes to hats. These are among Dunkley’s favourite commissions, but not, perhaps, for the obvious reasons.

“My favourite hat to make is for someone who doesn’t like the bride but is attending the wedding,” he laughs. “For one woman, it just kept getting bigger and bigger, with feathers and everything. It made even me nervous at the size. She loved it.”