Congratulations to Melbourne Milliner, Stephanie Spencer who received the 2020 Melbourne Cup Millinery Award. This COVID year has been the most challenging of all for milliners globally. Shoes as a Hat epitomises our feelings as our normal worlds have been turned upside down. A Milliner commented prior to the judging, "I love the ballet shoes hat. So clever and beautiful.” This certainly sums up the joy that this design has brought to many. 

How did your personal interest in dance inspire you to create this piece?
I have been dancing in various incarnations, in a casual capacity for years. Not to compete or because I want to be a 'dancer' but because it's such a 'happy' part of my routine now. It was this hobby and sense of creative freedom and my friends and this sense of community that comes with it that I really missed the most over the eight months of lockdown in Melbourne. So the piece I suppose is really about what I was longing and pining for, we could go about our life again! I chose ballet shoes and they're just so emblematic and symbolic of the word 'Dance' and I find the aesthetics of classical ballet so captivating.

What was the biggest challenge? 
I think elements of the logistical construction proved to be the greatest hurdle of the piece. The first was making the block - I figured it would be easier to build than to carve away, and far less messy. It was also frustrating as nothing was open here so I couldn't just run into a hardware store and roam the shelves to see what might work. I ended up shaping and moulding compressed alfoil, while directly referencing a pair of pointe shoes I had purchased on Facebook market place, covering the shape in paperclay and reinforcing it with a very heavy duty glue a couple of times.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention! It was a very inexpensive and effective block and I'd do it again in heartbeat. Also the step by step construction process was not only extremely fiddly, but also required a bit of fore thought as to make it as efficient as possible, so I would map out the process before I would go to the studio each morning.

How many hours of work were required to complete this hat?
If I had the usual deadlines and constraints of Spring Carnival I couldn't have created this piece. There's easily 100 hours of hand stitching in the piece in addition to the blocking and drying time of each component, which had to be done one-at-a-time as I only had the one block. I didn't have any practice runs, but I had the convenience of time this year, allowing me to assess each step beforehand.

What is your favourite millinery material to work with?
I love working with woven straws, but I love working with a lot of materials that are traditionally reserved for textile applications. DMC embroidery thread, fabric paints, silk dyes. Hats make great canvases.

What did you enjoy the most about creating this piece?
I loved that I had the time to execute what I thought to be a strong concept. I really enjoyed the creative problem solving aspect of the piece. I hadn't made shoes as a hat before, so I loved nutting out the construction process in detail. I want to make more objects as hats now! I loved watching each step come together to make a finished piece!

What is the most enjoyable factor about entering millinery competitions?
I have entered twice previously and on both occasions I didn't make it past the first round. In conjunction with extreme deadlines of a usual spring carnival, I'm rushed and have done all-nighters on both occasions to finish pieces I've not been 100% happy with. This year I could work slowly and methodically. This year was so different from previous years, I would generally find millinery competitions terrifying, as I can get terrible stagefright. Standing in front of a laptop made this so much more managable!

I do love thinking up of new techniques for award pieces, they might not have been winning hats, but the techniques have found my way into my practice. The different species of Orchids I made from leather and hand-painted in 2017 is a pretty good example!

» More from Stephanie Spencer

Video: Victoria Racing Club

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Tags: #2020, #behindthehat, #millineryaward, millinery award

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