Obituary: John Boyd MBE, milliner who went from humble Edinburgh beginnings to making hats for royalty

John Richardson Boyd MBE, milliner. Born 5 April 1925 in Edinburgh. Died 20 February 2018, aged 92

Milliner John Boyd and sister Jessie in the 1940s
Milliner John Boyd and sister Jessie in the 1940s

John Boyd emerged from humble origins in his native Edinburgh to become one of the world’s most celebrated milliners through his work for royalty and high society over 75 years.

Boyd’s client list bulged with famous names, Diana, Princess of Wales being the best known. The pink tricorn hat he designed as her “going away” hat after her wedding featured in countless photographs worldwide and became a huge success with milliners all over the globe, struggling to keep up with the demands for copies. Other high-profile clients included Anne, the Princess Royal, Baroness Thatcher, Princess Michael of Kent, Lady Soames, Diana’s grandmother Baroness Fermoy, mother Mrs Frances Shand-Kydd and daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge.

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In his creations Boyd always adopted an individual approach to the client, seeking to emphasise her best features and taking into account the shape of her face, her personality, hairstyle and the type of function for which the hat was required. Using his own strong sense of style and design he wanted to flatter and bring out the best in the wearer. He was a traditionalist in the sense that everything was handmade from scratch on his premises and he was generous with his time and experience to others in the industry.

In 2014 he was awarded the MBE for his services to the fashion industry.

Born John Richardson Boyd the youngest of seven children of John and Janet nee Anderson, he enjoyed a poor but happy upbringing in the city’s Henderson Row. His father was a printer in Leith but lost his job in the Depression. Growing up with three sisters Boyd would observe how they dressed before going out dancing, sparking a lifelong interest in fashion.

He was very close to his eldest sister, Jessie who became a ballet dancer and later worked for him as shop manager. Having left school at 15 he took a job in the North British Rubber Company, then producing camouflage netting for tanks and other war effort items. As he found the work boring, he often doodled fashion designs on scraps of paper which were noticed and liked by Heather van Altena, a “society lady” volunteering alongside him in the factory.

She suggested introducing him to her friend Aage Thaarup, the well-known London-based Danish milliner who counted the Queen Mother among his clients. As a result Boyd moved to London in 1941 to do an apprenticeship with him in Grosvenor Square. In 1943 he was conscripted into the Royal Navy, where he would spend the next three years.

As signaller on a naval craft with 37 marines aboard, he was present at the D Day landings and recalled how the cannons reverberated through his metal ship as it was led through dangerous mined waters by dolphins swimming ahead. Like many of his generation he spoke little of his war experiences, becoming emotional if he did so.

On a more upbeat note, duties sometimes took him to various small seaports around the country, where he would use free time to buy old trimmings such as braids and ribbons for future use. Once demobbed he used his gratuity to set up a tiny basement studio in London where he also lived, sleeping under his work table. Slowly he began building a reputation and his first big break came when the well-known fashion designer Clive Duncan, from Blairgowrie, asked him to make two-dozen hats for his first London show in September 1947.

That was a success and his business grew, moving to larger premises in Lowndes Street as his work began to attract an upmarket clientele such as Baroness Fermoy and Frances Shand Kydd. His next move was in 1960 to Walton Street and in 1967 he first came to prominence nationally and beyond when he designed a hat for Princess Anne to wear for a ship launching.

Breaking from royal tradition, which favoured brimless hats, Boyd made her a boater, which attracted much favourable reaction, and later he made her a sombrero, a lemon bowler and a stetson, which received wide publicity, placing his work on the world stage.

Diana, the world’s most-photographed woman, became his stellar client after being introduced to him by her mother. He was extremely fond of her, referring to her affectionately as “my wee lassie”, a nod to his Scottish tones and accent which he never lost. He gifted her the famous tricorn hat and as she liked tight-fitting hats, he bought special wire combs from Thailand to keep them in place. Diana would sit with the staff in his upstairs workshop while he entertained the world’s press below. Her identification with hats resuscitated a generally flagging millinery industry on a global scale. Thirty-five years after Diana’s first contact with him, her daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, wore her first Boyd hat, a wide-brimmed grey number.

For the past 25 years or so Boyd’s business has been based in Knightsbridge’s Beauchamp Place, where it continues to operate. Home to 44 milliners in post-war times, it was where Boyd always aspired to be; his is now the only remaining business. His premises mirror his fine sense of style with marble floors, antique French mirrors and chandeliers, and there he continued offering the highest-quality service to the many distinguished clients who were very loyal to him.

Boyd still worked two days a week until recently, commuting from his home in Brighton, where he enjoyed his sea view. He did a lot of work for charities, arranging hat shows in conjunction with fashion shows.

Quiet and modest with a good sense of humour, Boyd never sought the limelight and endeared himself to all.