David Shilling, a 32-year-old Englishman, made his name as a milliner. In 1965, at 12, he designed a huge black-and-white hat for his mother to wear at Ascot, the one horse-racing event always attended by the Royal Family. It caused a sensation. "I came home from school, put down my satchel and picked up the newspaper. On the front page was my mom," Shilling says.
Every year after that, he designed his mother another Ascot hat. Each creation seemed more outlandish than the last--a three-foot top hat with a rabbit emerging from it; a "William Tell" hat, an apple pierced by an arrow; a giraffe; a big newspaper "boat" hat printed with clippings about Mrs. Shilling and cartoons of her. Mrs. Shilling came in for a lot of satire. Barry Humphries, the Australian female impersonator, dressed up in a grotesque "Mrs. Shilling" hat modeled on the Sydney Opera House.
David Shilling was pained by the Humphries skit. "It was a rather cruel dig in the ribs at my mother; it exceeded good taste," he protested. "I think it was a vicious attack. The hats for my mother weren't meant to be ridiculous. They were meant to make people laugh with them rather than at them. I think they were fashion statements as much as anything I am designing now; those were the 'Yellow Submarine' years, the 'Sgt. Pepper' years--it was part of all that. And the paper-boat hat was a fashion 'first' because photographic techniques came in that enabled one to print on fabrics. I got my mother's press book out, made up a dummy newspaper page, including some of the cartoons and even a letters column. The hat was three feet long. My mother wore mink-trimmed hot pants with it."
What year was that?
Shilling rather grandly replies: "I'm very lucky; I don't have to remember things like that because the museums do it for me." The Ulster Museum in Northern Ireland has recently held an exhibition of 35 of his hats. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has on sale in its shop a post card of one of his hats. He is commercially successful too. The average Shilling hat--if anything by Shilling can be considered 'average'--costs around $1,000. In the 1970s, David Shilling ceased to be an annual joke. He became the most fashionable milliner in the world. "I went to the root of the problem of why women in the early 1970s weren't wearing hats at all. There were several reasons. Hats weren't being designed to go with the fashions of the moment. The colors were wrong. The silhouettes were wrong, and the hats were being made in an old-fashioned way--much as corsets were being made years ago from whalebone. I'm a chauvinist pig a bit, but to expect women to wear great, heavy things on the head, in the light '70s when clothes were supposed to be comfortable, wouldn't work." Shilling offered women a chance to have some fun with their headgear, but he always bore in mind the comfort factor. "Very early on, I started designing collections of flowers and fruits that I would put on the hats, and all the time I remembered that one couldn't have so many petals that it would become heavy."
I suggested to Shilling that he had done for the hat what was done for architecture years earlier when stone and brick houses were superseded by frame-and-screen construction. He leaped at the idea with avidity. "I was never trained as an architect, but a lot of people have said my hats are architectural, and I'm proud of the idea. One day, I'd like one of my hats to be made into a multistory car park." Saying things like that, in addition to making some of the most eye-catching hats of the century, has kept Shilling in the fashion headlines. Like his hats, his conversation has a constant garnish of surrealism; "in for a Shilling, in for Ezra Pound," as they say.
In the last 18 months, David Shilling's art has taken a new direction. "I had got the hats under control," he says, like a gardener referring to some virulent, luxuriant weeds. It seemed time to tackle a new medium and a new art form. In 1984, Wedgwood asked him to design a table setting--just a design of how to set out their own wares. Then they asked him to design a figurine, "a fairly romantic figure with flowers in her hat." Wedgwood did so well with the figure that they asked Shilling to design a new one each year, in a limited edition of 750.
This year's figure, now on sale, is more adventurous and more modern. It is based on a photograph of model Michelle Harwood. Her dress has a platinum glaze and her ribboned, turban-like hat is also platinum glazed. So Shilling thinks he is being modest in calling the figure "Silver Bows." The piece bears the mark of Coalport, a wholly owned subsidiary of Wedgwood. Shilling supplied the Coalport modelers with sketches and photographs, and when the modeler produced a rough model, Shilling worked with him. "I found that the bows on the hat needed to be exaggerated a bit in the figurine," Shilling recalls, "and I moved the arms about and found where they looked best."
He has also designed an 18-piece coffee / tea set for Wedgwood--it bears the Wedgwood mark--decorated with a delicate design like that on a paisley shawl, with pearl drops, beads, ribbons and floral sprays. Wedgwood calls it a "breakfast set." He calls it "Interlude." "It's for when you want to treat yourself, either on your own or with somebody intimate. It has a vase for a single rose, which means that when you use the David Shilling Interlude set, it's a little event in your day. And there's a china bell--not that we have maids to summon, but we can pretend."
The temptation to speak of the Mad Hatter's tea party is almost irresistible, but Shilling has been the subject of more than enough jests during the last 20 years. He deserves to be taken seriously--well, half seriously, anyway.
The Interlude set is available for $750 (plus $4 shipping costs) from The Wedgwood Store, 304 Stockton St., San Francisco 94108, which also supplies the "Silver Bows" figure, at $400 (plus $2.50 shipping costs).
Michelle Harwood, above, wears hat that inspired David Shilling's Coalport figurine "Silver Bows," right.