In Style: I have always been fascinated by hats and loved dressing up

BESIDES racehorses, the Queen Mother knew a thing or two about hats and sported them with aplomb for over a century, so the chance to work with her milliner was a feather in the cap of Sally-Ann Provan.

Recently graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, with an honours degree in jewellery design, she realised she preferred the freedom of hat design and applied to work with the woman who had been turning heads with her designs for the Royal Family matriarch for decades.

"She's a lovely woman, Rose Cory, and very particular. The Queen Mother favoured a particular style and Rose did it in many variations, but the most important thing she taught me was the value of finish. A hat can look shabby if it's not finished properly and if someone is having something handmade it should be beautifully finished. I pride myself on my hand stitching, quality of pleating and trimming."

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At the other end of the scale are the hats Provan makes for Scottish Opera; bonnets for La Traviata, tricorn hats for Manon. "Working for the stage, it's all about effect and the hats are big and bold. It also gives me a chance to make hats for men because they don't wear them much nowadays, apart from fedoras and trilbies.

Millinery techniques are very traditional, with most practitioners using methods that are hundreds of years old and Provan works mainly with long-established materials such as straw and velvet. However, she is increasingly introducing plastic, metal and leather for contrast and texture.

The couture millinery training she received courtesy of the Queen Mum's hatter was supplemented by theatrical millinery lessons and led on to work with opera houses and film work that included Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd. Her clients range from Ascot race-goers to brides, theatre, opera and TV companies and she worked on the BBC's The 39 Steps and Bafta-nominated fantasy, Gormenghast.

In addition to teaching fashion design, millinery and accessories part-time at Edinburgh College of Art and in schools, Provan produces commissions for special occasions, brides and the races from her Edinburgh workshop and her online boutique sells her diffusion range and selected couture pieces, with prices ranging from 85 to 650.

Provan's hat obsession started in childhood with a pink, rabbit-skin affair she used to 'borrow' from her mother when she wasn't looking.

"My mother had a fur hood I loved because it was wonderfully soft and I thought it looked fantastic on me. It was the height of glamour and something special and I have always been fascinated by hats and loved dressing up," she says.In the studio at her Edinburgh home, where floor-to-ceiling shelves are stacked with hat blocks, boxes of ribbons, materials, display heads and hat stretchers, Provan is currently furiously sewing and steaming peach bloom velour felt, straw and trimming into hats in preparation for London Fashion Week next month and the accompanying exhibition of her work.

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"It's a rare honour for accessory designers to showcase their work in a catwalk show at London Fashion Week and I'm really excited. I'm collaborating with clothes designer Sara Shimasue on 12 outfits, me doing the hats."

"For me, it's about creating a mood rather than a direct inspiration and it always has a slight vintage slant. I've always been obsessed with the 1970s; Barbara Bach's dress in The Spy Who Loved Me is the vibe for the London Fashion Week collection and I'm also inspired by Victorian bird cages and the flight of the bird when it's free, plus magpies, because they hoard shiny things and I identify with that."

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One of Provan's best sellers is a trilby, that's bought by women of all ages. "It suits every one, whatever their age, and is perfect for everything from weddings, to parties to the races. "

The races? The Queen Mother would definitely approve. n

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, August 15, 2010

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