As a little girl attending the Holy Ghost catching, foot stomping, hand clapping Baptist churches of rural Georgia, I became very familiar with the ever famous ‘church hat.’ We all know the pastor’s wife was entitled to the biggest, brightest, and most elaborate hat of the congregation, but the other ladies always wanted to be that close second. French milliner Lilly Daché understood the importance of elaborate headdress long before they caught on below America’s Bible belt.
“Glamour is what makes a man ask for your telephone number. But it also is what makes a woman ask for the name of your dressmaker.”
Lilly’s passion for fashion began early and she earned her first apprenticeship at the age of 15. Her first job was with a Bordeaux milliner and soon after moved to Paris to work for leading French milliners Caroline Reboux and Suzanne Talbot. In 1924, Lilly ventured out alone and moved to New York City at the age of 16. With only $13 in her pocket, Lilly ended up living with an uncle in Atlantic City. She thought the big city would be the perfect place to begin her career and sell her designs. She got her first exposure to the American fashion industry through a gig she landed as a saleswoman at Macy’s. After a few months at her part time, Lilly quit and began working at the Bonnet Shop, a hat store in NYC.
The young French girl had big dreams and even bigger drive. She ended up buying the Bonnet Shop from her boss and started selling her own designs there. Business boomed and the shop became too small for Lilly and her hats. Thanks to the success of her designs she was able to relocate to a bigger building on East 56th Street. At the age of 25, she established the Lilly Daché Building. Lilly Daché became the talk of the NYC streets.
At the Lilly Daché Building brunettes entered through a silver fitting room and blondes a gold one. Ms. Daché worked in a leopard skin robe with matching slippers. You always knew when she was nearby because the sound of the bells on her slippers preceded her presence. She was best known for her draped turbans because the personally draped them on her customers’ heads making them one of a kind and personalized. Business was good for Lilly during this time because during the 1940s there was a fabric shortage. Women were not able to afford dresses, so hats were the next best thing.
During a time where hats held more rank that dresses, Lilly Daché was there to seize the opportunity. She was the top milliner in New York. Her fame as a hat maker even gained her a spot on the game show “What’s My Line?”
With her creations resting snugly on the heads of New York’s elite, it was only a matter of time before celebrities caught on. Some of Lilly’s movie star clients included Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Beatrice Lilly, Betty Grable, Caroline Lombard, and Loretta Young.
After World War II’s end, Lilly added dresses, gloves, lingerie, loungewear, hosiery, bras, and fragrances to her roster of hats.
In 1968, Lilly retired from the fashion industry and her daughter Suzanne took over. Lilly and her husband Jean enjoyed the next 20 years together in their homes in Paris and New York. Lilly Daché passed away in a French nursing home in 1989 at the age of 91.
Much like the other women featured in Art HERstory, Lilly Daché did not gain worldwide recognition until after her death. In 1940, she won the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award and in 1943 she won the first Coty American Fashion Critics Award.
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