Guest Post: Stephen Jones Lecture

The University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art and Design welcomed British milliner Stephen Jones last week to deliver a guest lecture as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series. We are most fortunate, dearest readers, that longtime reader and commenter, Mitten Mary, attended the lecture and generously offered to share the experience here. Mary- welcome to Royal Hats!

When I read that Stephen Jones speaking locally, I knew I had to go. But, since the sponsor is an art and design school and Jones creates avant-garde statement pieces like these for couture shows and events like the Met Gala, would he be too conceptual for an ordinary royal hat fan?

As it turned out, no! There were only five hats on display, alas, not very well lit or easy to see, so I couldn’t take photos as Scarfie did when she visited the exhibit at the Royal Pavilion. Here is my recap instead.

When Stephen Jones started in fashion at an art college, he was told by an instructor that he’d need to learn how to sew, so he got a summer job at a design house. He saw a large pot of glue in the millinery department and thought if he moved into that department, he’d be able to avoid sewing. (He only learned later how much hand work was involved.) When he asked the milliner about joining her staff, she told him to create a hat over the weekend. Scrambling to meet the challenge, he used cardboard from a cereal box, fabric provided by his sister, and plastic flowers (a petrol station giveaway!) supplied by his mother. (He didn’t realize that hats were trimmed with silk flowers.) The milliner found the plastic flowers a punk touch. He showed an image of the hat — sorry, but I can’t locate it online — and it was amazingly plausible.

The London club scene was an early influence on him. He must have learned to sew somehow, because he started creating small hats that he and his friends could wear while dancing, sometimes taking apart and re-constructing hats from thrift stores. He was just barely in business with a tiny shop when a designer friend told him to come meet an important client. He was surprised to find that it was the Princess of Wales!

Embed from Getty Images

Jones spoke of the importance of having friends and a network to establish the business, which led to close collaborations with Thom Browne, John Galliano, and other designers. I was surprised that at least one designer starts with the model’s makeup and a Stephen Jones hat, then creates the runway design around that.

He reported that while clients come to the couture houses, milliners are apparently expected to go to the clients, so he is at Heathrow every week! As a result, he had some fun stories. Once, the young princes were in the room when he was fitting Diana. Little Harry threw a handful of pins in the air, so Jones was briefly worried that the future King of England would be blinded by getting a pin stuck in his eye! More recently, when he was fitting Amal Clooney for her dreamy royal wedding hat, George offered him a sandwich and proceeded to make it himself. 

For someone who travels in such lofty circles, he was a personable speaker. He acknowledged the importance of his shop’s team, admitting that he doesn’t make everything himself. (How could he?) During the Q & A, he was asked about sustainability and observed that fashion has a limited life span, which will have to change – a surprising (maybe a little disingenuous?) statement from someone who creates a lot of pieces that are only worn once. That topic also spurred his admission that he was wearing a sock with a hole, but he was determined to find a darning mushroom so he could mend it as he remembered his mother doing.

I was slow to raise my hand, so I didn’t get to ask my question: does your design dictate the material, or are the materials the source of the design? I also wondered about his innovative straw top hat – how did he think of that, and how are they selling?

There was a videographer on the event, so if anyone is interested in the full presentation, I’ll let you know when it is posted. In the meantime, here are some of his recent designs for the royals highlighted in his presentation:

Embed from Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images

It’s amazing that Mr. Jones’ illustrious millinery career started with a cereal box and petrol station plastic flowers!! Thank you so much Mary, for sharing this fascinating look at a milliner who has made so many fantastic royal hats. 

Photos from Getty as indicated 

29 thoughts on “Guest Post: Stephen Jones Lecture

  1. I *live* in Ann Arbor and I didn’t hear about this! RATS!

    Some very cool observations; thank you for sharing, MittenMary!

  2. How fun! Stephen Jones seems to have a wonderful sense of humor, in word and work. Thank you for sharing your day with us mittenmary! You had great questions! I wonder if you might be able to ask them on his social media feeds? Worth a try at least!

  3. MM, thanks for the fascinating report. I was blown away with the red Met Gala ensemble, and got a huge smile with the ice cream moretta! Great choices for us all to enjoy.

    • Jimbo, I thought the non-seductive image on what is meant to be an instrument of seduction was pretty funny! Jones pointed out that the cone is made from cane — did you notice?

  4. Stephen Jones – what an awesome experience Mittenmary, you must have been so excited! The details he shared are fascinating. And I love the photos you picked to illustrate your report. Thank you!

  5. A blanket thanks to all for your kind comments. Before I found this blog, I had no idea who Stephen Jones was, so thanks, as always, to HatQueen for the ongoing education!

    • That’s the beauty of our conversation here- we are all learning together! Sharing the things we’ve learned, as you have done here, is a wonderful gift.

  6. Thank you so much mm for such a well-written account (and what good questions you had waiting!). What a fascinating insight into a fascinating milieu.

  7. When I saw Stephen Jones’ Instagram post that he was in Ann Arbor, I was mad and jealous because I grew up less than two hours from there in northwest Ohio, except now I’m in DC!

    What a great opportunity for you Mary to experience this talk, even if you were unable to ask your question (I would be too nervous to ask, or overthink my question and then it would be too late haha).

    P.S. I’ve always found it interesting how most milliners come to have certain distinctions with their hats, making it easier to spot their designs, but with Stephen Jones, I’ve found that almost impossible. Glad he keeps us on our toes!

    • Jake, I think that is so true about his designs. The exception might be berets, slouchy or structured, that he seems to have been making since the early ‘80s.

  8. Oh so lovely to read from another hat fan who has had the opportunity to hear Stephen Jones speak – I caught him “In Conversation” at the V&A as part of the Dior Forum that tied in with Dior Designer of Dreams. He was a very interesting interview subject and I do hope you were able to meet him after the talk!

  9. Thank you so much for this recount! I adore Stephen Jones! I saw him once in Paris very early one morning walking to Dior during PFW… He was carrying a huge Dior hat box… I nervously called out ‘Mr Jones’ and he spun around with a smile…greeted me and let me take a photo with him. He is gorgeous.

  10. What a fun opportunity for you, mittenmary, and thank you for sharing your experience with us! It’s a shame you didn’t get to ask your brilliant question, but I love the stories of how he started off, as well as the fact that he has to meet clients at Heathrow!

    • Thanks, Shanon! I was unclear about Heathrow — I just meant that he has to fly someplace every week, not that he meets clients there. (Waiting for a delayed flight would be tolerable if we got to see something like that!)

      • Oh that makes sense! I probably just read it wrong. Thanks for clarifying.
        What an extraordinary experience for you! He’s seems like such a fun guy.

  11. Thank you for sharing your experience with us Mary. What a pity you didn’t get to ask your questions! I am sure you are as knowledgeable as others in the audience, if not more.

    • Wies, I wondered about something that came up in the Q & A. He said that vintage hat blocks are usually too small for contemporary heads. Milliners cover them with padding to make them bigger, but that can result in a loss of definition. Is that your experience? And if you wanted new blocks made, is there anyone who would still do that?

      • Yes, that is true, vintage hat blocks are quite often rather small. I have some lovely French vintage blocks, which will only suit small, kitten-like faces. The average size would be a 56 cm, whereas nowadays I would rather order a size 58 cm. When it is a brim, the “entrée” (the hole in the middle) can’t be made any bigger of course (padding would have the opposite effect) and it is quite a job to adapt the shape which comes off the block to a modern head size.

        I say “I would order” for indeed, there are still some block makers around. They sculpt wooden blocks by hand or with sophisticated machinery, or a combination of the two. The best ones are true artists. Most of them sell blocks from there own collection, which one can order in different sizes. It is also possible to have a block made after ones own design or to have a vintage block copied in a bigger size, but that would be more expensive.
        If you are interested you can visit the website of British block maker Owen, from Guy Morse Brown ( or Darryl Osborne’s for some fine exemples of contemporary block making.

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