Ellen Christine is a very cool lady. She’s a milliner and for those of us who are not familiar with that term (I for one!), it basically means that she makes hats for women. Nestled in a corner of the West Village in New York City, her atelier is a wonderland of fabrics, ribbons, glamorous pictures, and of course, a mélange of haute couture hats. They range from the sleek, whimsical, regal, practical, and sophisticated. Each one has a specific character of its own and primly sits waiting for it to be bestowed upon the right head. To walk into her shop, for me, was a foray into a new world in which the once unknown and foreign practice of hat wearing suddenly opened up new possibilities.
Not only does she design hats but Ellen is also a huge fan of the Outlander book series by Diana Gabaldon and the television adaptation on Starz (look closely and you may find a “Pocket Jamie” sitting on her shelf). Season 2 opens with our favorite characters in 18th century Paris and the costumes reflect the rich, lavish, and ornate detail of the period. Not coincidentally, Ellen happens to be deeply intimate with this fashionable city. Her experience of the place, her career in the industry, and her love for all things Outlander make her a wonderful person to learn more about fashion history, learn a little French, and hear about the kind of hat she’d make for the story’s main character, Claire.
Oh, and listen to her epic encounter with the overwhelmingly handsome Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie Fraser, at this year’s New York City Tartan Parade.
Click on the photos and meet the hats up close and personal….
J: So tell me about yourself.
EC: That’s so long. Pick a subject!
J: Personally and professionally.
EC: I make hats [laughs]. I do sort of phantasmagorical headwear head pieces. Regular hats once in a while for people. For everyday people, for celebrities, for shows, for theater, for film, for anybody at all that wants a hat. I do not discriminate. I started making hats probably about 1982. I did costumes before that and somehow got dumped into the world of hat making cause there was nobody around to do it. So we needed a hat for a piece—it was actually a gladiator’s helmet—it wasn’t a hat for a show that I was doing. I had to figure out how to make it and then word got out: “Ellen can do it! Ask Ellen she knows how to do it!” So I started figuring out how to do it and a designer friend of mine asked me to do a few for their collection, and then another designer asked me to do some more for their runway show, and you know so on and so forth. So it just built up from the 80’s up until now.
And personally, I’m from Philadelphia. Born outside of Philadelphia in a place called Upper Darby. Tina Fey is also from Upper Darby although I don’t know her, never met her. She did wear one of my head pieces in Vogue so there’s that claim to fame.
The way that we grew up fomented creativity. We were in the girl scouts, we were in the clubs after school, we made our own dolls clothes, we learned knitting, we learned basket weaving, we took craft things in the summer time. We went to special classes with this church or that church or the other church. All of my friends and I were constantly making, doing, learning how to do stuff. So it was very active. We were very active girls.
And that’s sort of where it came from. My mom always did stuff. My grandmother always did stuff. I grew up in a household that appreciated and inculcated creativity. And that’s sort of who I am. An inculcated creative.
J: You kind of mentioned how you got into hat making, but were you in the theater before? Is that where the gladiator thing came in?
EC: I had my own store when I was 17. I made all the clothes for the store and from the store, when I came back to the states, cause that was in Puerto Rico, I went to college in Puerto Rico, I came back to the states and I got into working for different companies. And one of them had a costume thing attached to it and that’s where I fell into. Cause I had done all of the plays in high school. We always made our own costumes. It was just a natural segue for me to be picked up by some friends that had a summer troupe in the Poconos. That would be like the Catskills of New York, or Upstate, Massachusetts [sic]. Ya know, where they have summer theater and stuff. I would do shows here and there. That’s how it happened. When you start doing something and word gets out you keep on doing that.
J: I’m really curious. Why hats?
EC: Because they’re faster to make than a ball gown? Hats started, as I said, because of that theater production and a couple of other different things that happened. But when I’m working on a collection, even back then and now, I don’t do it in a muslin. I do it in another fabric. I do it in another material so that I can see the play of light and color. And I wound up with a lot of samples!
And I was doing my graduate work at NYU in Paris and a girlfriend of mine who was there with me at the same class was walking down the rue de la Roquette which is in Bastille and saw an accessory store. And they had everything in there but hats! So she went in and said [faux British accent], “Oh you don’t have any hats!” And they said, “We’ve been looking for somebody with hats” and she said, “Ah hah!” She came back and got me and I went over and talked to them and the next thing I knew I was hauling hats by the duffel bag full over to Paris from New York. And they all sold. They sold in a very short amount of time. So I did hats for that shop in Paris for a couple years.
J: But the styles over there?
EC: Paris is the kinda place where you touch a rock, a stone, wall, anything marble, brick, touch it and it immediately starts [makes a buzzing sound] like the stones? They start humming to you. It’s amazing. If you’re any kind of a seer or any kind of a clairvoyant it must be such a trip to be there. But we were doing graduate classes at Versailles. We were walking through the streets of old Paris. We were marching up and down. We weren’t just in a class room we were running all around the place. Mind you I went to graduate school when I was 35 so we’re not talking about 22 year old dimwits running around. We were all older and, ahem, responsible students.
Mind you, the class would be down the street doing an architectural lecture and “Where’s Ellen? Where’s Ellen?”
“Oh she’s back there at the shoe store! There was a sale! We lost her at the shoes!”
But Paris was always something that France in general, but certainly Paris, that spoke to me immediately. There was always a rampant field of inspiration. And it could be a piece of wrought iron at the end of a fence post; it could be, ya know, the swish of a skirt as it walks by; it could be the sneakers that you see in a store window. It was always that kind of a place for me.
J: How did you discover Outlander?
EC: Side of a bus in Manhattan.
J: Last year?
EC: Yeah, right before Season 1 started. Or not right before, I guess, whenever they started running the buses. I do a lot of running up and down, and I saw that on the side of a bus and I said, “Oh my god that looks so interesting. I wonder what that is?” And I looked it up online, as I’m wont to do, because I’m a research fool. And I found out when it was starting and I made sure that it was in my cable program. I had it all ready. Starz to the rescue! It’s already there.
And then I went out and immediately bought the book, the first book, and I found out that there wasn’t a book—that there were 8 books, and companion books, and sideswipe books, and underneath the table books, and little one chapter books, and short story books. So I dove head on into the whole thing and before it started online, I had read just about everything that I could get my heads on and found out all about it. I checked online. I looked at the people who had been fans for 20 years and found out that it was a whole fanaticism built around it for a reason.
Because Diana Gabaldon writes in such a way that the entire thing is painted inside of your eyeballs. And you don’t just read it, you feel it, you breathe it, and experience it while you’re going through it. It’s not like, oh a mystery novel. It’s not like Agatha Christie. It’s not like some of the greats that we’ve had around forever that we enjoyed it’s reading. This is a world! This is a universe and once you get dropped in there it’s like Ant Man. It’s Over! You’re hooked. So I got hooked.
J: Wow. Just because of a side of a bus.
EC: Good ol’ MTA
J: What about it did you enjoy?
EC: Once it started and I saw the texture. Each frame was built with so many layers–the show. I couldn’t get over the costuming; I couldn’t get over the lighting; I couldn’t get over the scenery. The art direction–I mean I just couldn’t get over some of the artifacts that they were using. Because at the same time I’m doing my research, I’m watching the show looking at this. and where did they get this, and where did they get that? There are scenes in the first season that have to do with textiles. That’s fascinating to anybody who’s in my world.
J: Are you a fan of the book or the show?
EC: Both. Both. Separately. Ya know, one is one and the other is the other. I think they have to be regulated to different sides of the shelf. I think they can cohabitate with no problem.
J: Claire is this strong independent woman. Since you’re a business woman and you’re creative, I wanted to ask what you think you might have in common?
EC: Other than the fact that my mother was a nurse? I’m not married to a Highlander! I hate medicine but I am bossy! And I am head strong and I do make my own decisions. I don’t have to balance it out with a husband, it’s slightly different there. I think the only thing I have in common with Clair—not Catriona [Balfe – the actress who plays Claire]—with Catriona I’d say we’re brunettes and that’s about it! But with Claire I think it would be head strong and independent.
J: If you could design a hat for Claire what would it look like and where would she wear it to?
EC: Oh dear. Which time frame?
J: You pick it.
EC: Terry’s doing pretty damn good with the hats she’s been doing. This whole reason for choosing Dior has really hit it on the money and that black hat happens to have been in my repertoire forever so I know it very well.
J: The black hat that she was wearing with the bar coat [Episode 202]?
EC: Bar suit. Yeah and the little hat that she wore. Well maybe I would’ve done a different little hat for that blue coat. Not quite so rounded.
J: In the first episode [of Season 2]?
EC: Right, but I think she wore something in another scene that was quintessential 40s. I mean, Claire’s not really a hat person. I’ve never been able to picture her in a nurse’s uniform with a prim white cap. I’ve never been able to picture her, even when she was out with her Uncle Lamb in a safari hat. I just don’t picture her as a hat person. I’m the first one to say everybody’s a hat person, cause all you need is a head and a face for it to work, ya know? So I think that it might be more ingenious to think of other things for her. Hair accessories and stuff for Versailles but she’s not fussy. She’s not a froofy kinda gal our Claire.
EC: So she’s not going to pick up a feather and a hoo ha and shove it in her chignon.
J: Right. Well if she walked into your shop.
EC: Well that’s a different deal.
J: And said “I need a hat”.
EC: That’s a different deal. An everyday hat, everyday hat… She’d have to have some version of a fedora because she’s into tailored. She’s into tailored very much so. And so something with a little bit of height. Not flat on her head. A medium to small brim, not a teeny tiny little cocktail hat, but something that states import. Nothing that makes her look like Deitrich in a movie but a simple little hat that she could wear to lunch. Just a bouncy little fedora would be nice.
J: I wanted to know, this might be a big question, but who or what are your inspirations?
EC: I watch a lot of old movies. There isn’t too much that has not been designed. There’s a lot of stuff out there. When the heyday of hats was high it was the 30’s and the 40’s; more films with hats in them than any other era. Hollywood always influenced design. It trickled down to the masses maybe, but it always did influence design much as it does now. Nowadays sometimes it’s the other way around. It depends on who’s doing what like for instance the Great Gatsby thing with all the Prada pieces. But I look to history, I look to architecture a lot since the passing of the architect that we lost a few weeks ago. But architecture is a really important influence because of the flow.
So I was always a Classist. I believed firmly in Corinthian columns and architecture that we’ve all known and loved for lo these many centuries. Especially in France, Vienna, Baroque, all the way down to the Regency, early 1800s. When the modern started it took me a long time to look at a modern building and I don’t mean the glass structures that are all over the universe. The swirly things, the movements, the different materials they’re using, I think its creating a flux of interest in new techniques as well as interesting line and form. So the future won’t be based on just sterility. I think it will combine the past and what we’re doing now. To create another sensibility as far as design goes.
But what influences me? Everything everything everything. A cupcake. Anything at all! I see hats everywhere. Everywhere. It’s disgusting.
J: I was curious what you know about the style of hats in the time and place that Season 2 begins. The history?
EC: They did a lot of what was called berger. That meant the shepherdesses. It continues on past them and into Marie Antoinette and the whole thing. Pretending that you were taking a stroll in the country, so they’d use natural straws, and tiny little flowers, and simple little ribbons, and such. Ya know that was the style that was quite popular at court.
You’re only talking about at court when you’re talking about fashion, because certainly the peasants, and I don’t mean that in any detrimental way shape or form, were not concerned with what they were wearing on their head. Hats were developed in the medieval times to protect the wearer’s head–rain, snow, whatever. They were gathering crops or trudging on a peregrinage*; off to some church somewhere. They had to be protected.
Sort of how felt was developed too. A padre put some sheeps wool in his shoes so he could walk the rest of the road and when he got there lo and behold it was felt! So that’s sort of how felt was developed. All of these Christian marches all around Europe in the medieval ages. So hats were only used by the aristocracy. And certainly these women surely didn’t spend a whole hell of a time outdoors, but when they did, they had to wear hats.
J: Has there been any hat that you’ve seen in Season 1 or 2 so far, that you don’t particularly like or you do like the most?
EC: The black hat. Absolutely. Especially because of the fact that it’s so very haute couture. I like it when they bring more haute into the play. Ya know it was fun in Scotland. It was really fun in Scotland but it was a different mind set. Now that they’ve brought fashion into it, it’s more stimulating and super interesting and I like watching what’s happening.
J: Cause I think in Season One, the only hats were like the Scottish little ones that Dougal wears right?
EC: Tams and such. And women weren’t frequently in hats.
But in the 40s they were really deep into hats. The only problem is that in England during the war, who had money for a new hat? Quite seriously they were hatless. As of the second World War, because they got hit so much harder than we did, we were still playing around with fashion as a way to stimulate the economy post war. But England didn’t have that freedom.
J: Do you call it your Scottish hat? What do you call it? A Tartan Hat?
EC: The Tartan Hats. That was originally designed for the World Cancer—Cat’s charity—they reached out to me [Catriona Balfe is a patron of World Child Cancer]. People find me. They reached out to me last year and asked if I could contribute a hat to a private auction. They had a silent auction to raise money. And I designed a bunch of tartan flowers to put onto little head pieces and I sent them one; to England so they could photograph it and put it in a silent auction. And they did one in, I don’t know whether it was, Ontario but it was in Canada, most definitely, at a gathering that was there. So now I’ve used it and expanded the collection. So it isn’t just one, it’s several. And I’m going to make them a part of the entire Fall Collection for next year here [2016/2017].
J: So what materials are you using?
EC: Well here in New York, we do not have access to what they have in Scotland. And because I cannot get the Fraser tartan, I cannot get the clans tartans unless you buy them [in] X amount of yards. Then I’m limited to what United States merchants bring in. So it’s a little bit of everything. Ralph Lauren uses tartan all the time. Usually it’s the Stuart plaid. It’s red and so that’s around a lot. I do it either in silk or in wool. I’ve done some roses and some camellias in the wool and I love the way that works out because it looks so rich.
And when you look close you can tell it’s a tartan but it’s not screaming in your face ya know. I like it to be a little bit subtle. So we’ll see, we’ll see.
J: The other one I saw has the tartan and the rose on it and then the lace. So I was wondering when you are designing those hats and the materials you’re using, are you using those particular materials, the flower, the lace because they might be related to Outlander?
EC: No, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with Outlander. It has to do with Scotland and the 18th century.
The fact that their outfits were similar to the outfits that they were wearing, maybe not similar, but certainly they were on par in their own way with Parisian fashion and with fashion in the capitals of the world: Vienna, Russia, not New York yet, London. But no it’s my sensibilities always tend towards lace and brocades usually. And I’ve always liked tartans. It just happens that they had asked me. World Child Cancer had asked me to create something for them and I was happy to do that. So that’s how that whole thing started. Like the Cooklander book. They asked me to contribute a recipe so I did.
J: What is the most enjoyable part of millinery?
EC: Playing with my stuff! [laughs] I love playing with my stuff! I’m constantly doing a mix of texture, and pattern and line. I have a very sense of organic movement in my designs. So the materials that I use have to be snobbishly excellent. They have to be silks and we make our own flowers here in town. I love putting them all together and ripping them all apart and putting them back together. The actual composition I guess the most fun part of making a hat is putting it on someone’s head and seeing it become part of their face. And seeing how the design works in itself.
It’s one thing if you see it on a wooden hat block, it’s another if you see it with two little eyes peeking out at you from beneath it, smile smile smile smile. It’s a nice feeling. When you put it together and see a design work with the face.
J: I wanted you to recount your story of Sam Heughan at the Tartan Parade.
EC: Sam Heughan at the Tartan Parade! Oh my god! It was a rainy day in Manhattan. I think that they thought they had to bring the weather with them for it to work. Please don’t do it next year guys, we don’t need it, we don’t need it! And Sam had gone into one of the buses and was on top of the buses at the end of the parade line. There was an L shaped parking of two tour buses and he was on one of them on top and inside. The press was on the other one, I think. And at some point he was bound to come down and say hello to everybody. Well for some unknown reason the 3000 girls in front of me left and I wound up at the edge of the barrier holding the world’s largest umbrella. I’m like, it was probably like a black spot. I most undoubtedly, probably was a black spot. Because my umbrella was huge, I was holding it over everybody else’s head.
Well Sam gets off the bus and then starts off down the line. And his press people and the kids from Starz are so good. They’re right there, they’re soaking wet. Everybody’s soaking wet and he’s smiling and happy and he’s soaking wet and I’m under my umbrella. And he’s saying hello to everybody and the fans who were just at the mouth of the bus there got to say hello. Starz was handing out the little people [Pocket Jamies].
And he comes down the line. And I’m next in the line and instead of walking past me, he wrapped his hand around mine, and the world’s largest umbrella, looked right into my eyes and said, “Thanks so much for coming” and ya know dummy dum dum is standing there with the world’s largest umbrella couldn’t even… I said thank you I’m so happy to come. What could I say? What could I say? What could I say? Buy me a drink? What could I say? Where’s the bottle? What could I say? Pass the bottle? What could I say?
What can you say when you’re confronted with that? Like oh my god! And he is tall. He was tall and wet. Dripping. Dripping on everybody. Everything. I mean he was just dripping. I mean he was on such a high. It was an unusual moment to be able to come face to face with him and have him say that directly to me. Ya know I had to eventually wash my hand. So now I have to find him again! I need another Sam encounter. No, but that was a trip.
J: Yeah that’s like the best trip.
EC: That was a trip. That was a real trip.
Ellen, thank you for being such a wonderful subject! You are a great example of how Outlander brings people of all backgrounds together. I’m glad we connected and chatted.