Amanda Keitch’s hats have been in demand for 30 years. She studied millinery at London’s Central St Martins and was quickly snapped up by Royal Milliner, Philip Somerville. At his Bond Street salon, she designed and made hats for The Queen, The Princess of Wales and The Duchess of Kent. Her hats have featured in the Bond film GoldenEye and many fashion shows and exhibitions. When she’s not making hats for clients, she teaches at Reigate School of Art.
When did your interest in clothes start?
I’ve always been interested in clothes. Quite early on when I started secondary school. Having travelled through primary school with the same kids, I wanted to be different and reinvent myself. The school shirt was white with a whopping great 1970’s collar which I love now but at the time there was no way I was going to wear it. I found a baby blue and white houndstooth shirt with a little collar which I wore every day. Looking back, I’m amazed that I got away with it. It was a big deal to rebel in any way but I liked being different. I liked standing out amongst my peers. I pierced my own ears with a needle and ice cube three times in each ear while my mum went to the shops. I was expecting a huge scene when she got back but Mum was so astounded she just congratulated me.
Why did you become a milliner?
My passion was to go to art college but I was dissuaded by my parents and school career’s officer not to. They thought I should take a more sensible career path; as a secretary. That was never going to happen. Back then I was quite wild. I was interested in identity and expression through how you looked. I shaved my head and became a punk. It was a reaction, really, to my conventional upbringing. My parents were so unwilling to support my passion of the arts. It was also a way to screen my shyness. The mad hairstyles (or lack of) and clothes could do the talking so that I didn’t have to.
After a hair-dressing apprenticeship at The London College of Fashion, I became a graphic designer. I really enjoyed it , especially my freelance work. Then the crash came and I had to change career. I applied to Central St Martins to do a millinery course and six months later landed my first job with Phillip Somerville. It immediately felt like a right fit and I’ve been making hats ever since. What I love about millinery, especially now, is that I no longer have to follow someone else’s brief but am free to create my own.
Can anyone pull off a hat?
Absolutely they can. Though if I had a penny for every time someone told me that hats didn’t suit them, I’d have retired. It’s all about scale and fit. We each have different body shapes, personalities, head shapes and these all have to be considered but there is a hat for everyone.
It’s partly that we don’t wear hats as much these days so some of that practise has been lost. A woollen hat, fedora or trilby perhaps in the winter, a sun hat in the summer, but it’s a fashion accessory that has become a bit alien. A lot of it comes down to confidence and having a milliner show you how to position a hat on your head.
What does it take to be a good milliner?
Apart from a creative flair, an appreciation of style, shape and form. You need to be able to take into consideration a client’s personality and have a thorough understanding of etiquette; knowing the dress codes for weddings or for Royal Ascot. This comes through many years of experience and from being taught by the best.
How has your style changed over time?
About nine years ago, I started going to Sandwich clothes sales with friends who are all equally interested in clothes. I would watch them trying on different things in the changing room and it started to make me look at fashion differently. I began to understand that what was important was what suited my shape and colouring rather than just making a statement.
My style has always been different. I used to wear capri pants and platform shoes and part of me questions whether I still can. Is it age appropriate? The other part of me says, damn right I can. It’s important to still reflect your personality through what you wear but to also understand that your body changes over the years. Much as I loved the more outrageous clothes that defined my younger wardrobe, I recognise that you have to be able to move with change because resisting it doesn’t work.
Does high fashion matter?
I used not to think so. How many of us can afford it anyway? But then you realise that even the most expensive fashion in the world connects with what we wear. It’s the trickle effect, starting with an idea, a creation from a top designer and ending up on the high street. Meryl Streep’s character sums it up perfectly in that Devil Wears Prada scene when she explains the journey of the humble blue jumper.
Is your mood influenced by what you wear?
Definitely. Especially during this lockdown period. It’s all to easy to give in to shorts, Dock Martins and a sports top because I don’t go anywhere except to walk the dog. If I’m not careful I could do this every day, so 2-3 times a week I’ll make an effort. I’ll wear a nice top, pencil skirt and put on some heels. It always lifts my mood.
Do you hoard clothes or regularly discard?
I’m a bit of a hoarder. It’s hard to throw things out but most of what I keep has sentimental value. In my wardrobe is a beautiful muted gold Nicole Farhi bolero jacket. I’ve had it 35 years. It was the first designer piece I ever bought and I love it to this day. Every now and then I’ll dig it out and wear it even though it’s a bit too small but I’ll never part from it. Same with a pair of board shorts I have. They’re beautifully cut and are a link to happy memories of surfing. I keep hoping that one day I might fit them again.
Which is your favourite style era?
That’s tricky as each era has so much to tell us, visually, socially and politically. If I had to choose, it would be the 1940s. It was a period defined by a clean and slim silhouette with a military feel. Jackets were short and close-fitting, unadorned and with the requisite sharp shoulder pads. They were structured and very flattering, modelling the hourglass shape. Part of why I love this era is that it’s similar to what I like to wear.
I also love the present. We’re not governed by so many rules. It’s much easier to build on existing pieces and make them our own. Individuality and authenticity is what I always strive for.
What outfit gets you lots of compliments?
When I wear one of my single vested jackets that nip in at the waist. Or my denim pencil skirt with Dock Martins or my silver brogues.
Are you led by trends?
Well, they interest me and I keep in touch with what’s out there because a lot of my clients follow them. I take on some and some I really don’t like as they can be a bit gimmicky. We should be looking at things that suit us rather than being trend-led. One trend I did love was Dior’s fitted jacket with the long tulle skirt and heavy black ankle boots. My single variation on that would be wearing metallic brogues.
What challenges do you have with clothes?
Necklines are always tricky but my biggest issue is the shift from winter to summer clothes. I find it hard to adapt. When I’m shopping I feel I need to be more summery but I’m not sure how to do it. So because of that, I end up repeating what I wear in the winter but with bare legs and less layers. Summer tops are the hardest to find because that’s where I start to lose my sense of self. I feel I should be doing what my friends do (who have clear seasonal wardrobes) but copying others never works.
Which of the many hats you’ve made are you most proud of and why?
Apart from the hats I made for the Queen and Princess Diana, it would have to be the Firebird. There was so much of me in that hat. It was for an exhibition and I had the luxury of time to make it. I called it The Firebird as an homage to Marc Chegall’s painting. It’s quite an emotional painting, dreamlike and etherial. I was listening to David Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul as I started making it. The song really resonated with me. I wanted those two art forms to go into the hat.
Do you still have it?
No, it was sold but it went to a good home.
What is your favourite Item of clothing?
Can I have two? My Dior-inspired skirt from the Dutch clothing brand Sandwich and my Carvella patent leather Mary Jane court shoes.
Do you have a fashion icon?
John Galliano is right up there but if I had to choose one it would be Vivienne Westwood. She designs from her heart and is unafraid to do her own thing. I love the silhouettes she creates, her understanding of the female form. Her name instantly conjures up bustles, pointed shoulder jackets, her use of duchess satins, tweeds and tartans. And of course her early punk stage when she set up shop on the King’s Road with Malcom McClaren. I was very much part of their rebellion tribe.
What fashion nugget of wisdom would you pass on to your daughter?
To be herself and enjoy her fashion but also to understand her body shape and what styles suits it. Colour is important too.
Any wardrobe disasters?
My most recent one was when I had to meet a work colleague in London. It had been arranged last minute so I didn’t have much time to prepare. The weather forecast was for a cool day so I went in a suit and shirt. I had overslept so was in a rush and only had time to iron the collar and cuffs. Of course, I got to London and, sod’s law, the weather was tropical. I got so hot and sweaty that in the end I just had to take the jacket off. I tried to roll up the sleeves to disguise the worst of the wrinkles but I felt so exposed. The mortification lasted until I finally got home.