A head for design
Mrs Gertrude Shilling had a nickname, the Ascot Mascot. For 30 years, amid the preening, posturing and glamour that makes Royal Ascot a highlight of the social calendar, she was the one woman guaranteed to catch all eyes.
Helping his mother into the limelight was David Shilling, milliner, sculptor and, some might say, humorist. He was just 12 when he first designed a hat for his mother to wear for a day at the races. Inspired by the movie of My Fair Lady, his creation was three feet wide and made of black and white tulle, with matching frilled shawl and mini coat-dress. He admits the hat was a sensation, but sees nothing unusual in the fact that a young boy spent his spare time creating hats.
"I’m an only child and my parents had been married a dozen years when I was born, so I was allowed to be very independent," he says. "My grandmother encouraged me to love fashion and couture particularly, and I designed my room when I was eight. Whereas other kids would put up a poster, I got the paintbrush out." Shilling’s upbringing in this nurturing artistic environment ensured that, far from being a one-off, his hat signalled the beginning of an annual fashion event which continued for over 30 years.
Today David Shilling is a designer of international standing, with his work in the collections of such museums as New York’s Metropolitan, the Musee de L’Art Decoratif in Paris and the British Government Art Collection. He has moved on from hats to sculpture and interior design, but it was as a milliner that he found fame. "There have been a few milestones in my life, one of which was my work coming to the notice of the public through my mother’s hats," says Shilling. "The next milestone was when I started designing commercially; I’ve been credited by museums around the world with having single-handedly revived hats in the late 20th century. I chose a time that was right for those sorts of hats, which was the late 1970s when people could wear them to Studio 54 and posh ladies could lunch in them. But I recognised in the early 1990s that life, and attitudes to dress in particular, have changed enormously. I am quite content that today’s lifestyle doesn’t include hats as much as it did in the late 1970s and 1980s."
Shilling may have moved on professionally, but interest in his mother’s Ascot hats has not diminished. When Mrs Shilling died in 1999, the National Horse Racing Museum asked him if they could set up a tribute to his mother, and today that has evolved into an exhibition at Shambellie House. Twenty outfits are on display, accompanied by photographs of Mrs Shilling wearing them at Ascot.
An Astroturf suit with a picnic hamper hat, complete with champagne glasses and strawberries, is just one example of the sense of fun which had racegoers and the press eagerly anticipating Mrs Shilling’s arrival each year. Then there was the red lace crinoline dress with a dartboard hat, the cheeseboard hat and even the mad cow hat. Often topical and more flamboyant by the year, you might wonder why Mrs Shilling agreed to wear them. "People think ‘did he push her into it?’ whereas that was absolutely not the case. It was very much the two of us together thinking up ideas that she’d enjoy wearing. Some of them are surprisingly just very glamorous, with lots of sequins and feathers, so they weren’t all mad and humorous, but she had this wonderful sense of humour and that’s what people absolutely love."
Gertrude Shilling was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s, and doctors estimated she had only six months to live. Her son feels it was the annual hat challenge which helped sustain her for another 30 years. Perhaps the most outrageous incident came in 1977, when her Jubilee creation was too big to fit into her husband’s Rolls Royce and required a separate vehicle. Not everyone was impressed. Two years earlier, Nigel Dempster wrote in his Daily Mail diary: "Mrs Shilling was up to her mad-hatter tricks again. She arrived in an outfit of such low taste that I am unable to bring myself to describe it, but at least she was met by a chorus from regular Enclosure patrons of ‘Get her out of here!’ My sentiments entirely."
But press and public reaction was usually good-humoured. "They were meant to be fun, at times I designed things that were very, very glamorous and to make an 80-year-old lady look that glamorous is quite a challenge, but I think we managed," says Shilling.
He adds that his Ascot designs actually put off as many potential customers as they encouraged, and he had to work hard to convince people he could also make stylish hats for modern women. He still makes hats for Ascot today, but says: "I don’t think anyone will ever replicate or replace Mrs Shilling, because she was so absolutely unique."
Why Did You Get That Hat? is at Shambellie House Museum of Costume, New Abbey, Dumfriesshire until 27 June, tel: 01387 850375
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