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Reporter role-plays as modest milliner ahead of Kentucky Derby 150

A pink fascinator with a pink flower, pink and green feathers and green horsehair.
Breya Jones
My final hat creation. Spot me wearing it at Derby 150.

Hats are a quintessential part of a Kentucky Derby look. And for Derby 150 coverage, LPM’s arts and culture Breya Jones tried creating her own custom hat.

Making hats, particularly the styles seen atop heads at Churchill Downs, is no small undertaking.

Formé Millinery Hat Shop owner Jenny Pfanenstiel takes about three to four days to complete a custom, couture hat.

“I'm taking raw material, it comes flat like fabric in a lot of cases, or some kind of cone-shaped, depending on how it's woven,” Pfanenstiel said. “But it's not a hat, it's not a shape.”

She uses a 200-year-old technique that uses vintage wooden hat molds. It all starts with the client consultation.

“If you are unsure what you want, I have some samples of some of my more popular styles that the customer can try on. And that way they can visualize what that style would look like on them,” she said.

Years of experience have given Pfanenstiel the ability to know what styles look best on different heads and face shapes.

Once she gets the hat specs, she has to form the raw hat material onto the hat mold and wait for it to dry. It’s the longest part of the process, sometimes taking days.

“Once that's dry, I have to hand-stitch the crown to the brim, nothing is glued, that I do here at this couture shop,” Pfanenstiel said. “Then I have to hand-sew the sweatband in and then I wire the brim. So that way it holds its shape. And then of course, then I add the embellishments.”

Embellishments can include feathers, flowers and other baubles. In collaboration with a bourbon company Pfanenstiel made pieces of wood from barrels.

A red hat with tan trim and a bowtie made of wood from a bourbon barrel.
Breya Jones
Pfanenstiel's collaborates with brands to create hats, like this one with Woodford Reserve which uses wood from a bourbon barrel to create a bowtie.

She said the centuries-old technique she employs, while time-consuming, allows her to craft hats in ways other milliners can’t.

“By coming to someone like myself, I can really get detailed of what a customer wants, and really get specific on matching a color or matching a style that the customer wants, and it will fit them exactly to their head size,” she said.

The journalist becomes the milliner

After spending some time in Pfanenstiel’s shop, I wanted to try my own hand at creating a Derby hat.

This year will be my third year covering Derby for LPM News, a perfect time for a custom hat. The Hat Shoppe allows people to live out their hat-making fantasy.

I met one of the store employees, Gina Cable, there a couple of weeks ago.

“The Hat Shoppe is a place that you can come, we have pre-made hats, we have pre-made fascinators, you can come and purchase one of those, but the best part about this shop is that you can come and create your own, whether you do it, or we help you to do it, or we do it for you,” Cable explained.

We started with the base. I went with a fascinator so it would better fit over my hair and not leave me trying to contain my curls.

The interviewer became the interviewee at this point. Cable asked me lots of questions about my outfit. What color and style was my outfit? Did I want to coordinate or compliment? How extreme did I want to make it?

Mauve, coordinate and open to extremes.

She convinced me to go with a fairly big base, and we agreed – a side tilt looked best.

Then it was time to add some zhuzh.

I chose a larger flower to serve as the centerpiece and a bouquet of feathers to fill it out. Cable suggested a burst of green to contrast my pink palette. It really worked.

“This is the fun part. And look how excited you are. I've made you so excited,” Cable said.

I left my fascinator and its pieces in Cable’s capable hands to be put together.

A week later, my glee at the final product was palpable.

I’ve never been a big hat person, but I found myself getting super excited about putting it together with my chosen outfit.

It made me think of something master milliner Pfanenstiel said.

“It's the cherry on top. It's the finishing touch, because a hat really can complete an outfit.”

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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