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Hats off to the doctor: The Kiwi with a PhD in millinery

Milliner Dr Margo Barton. Photo/Hayden Parsons.

For Margo Barton, hats will always be in fashion.

Machine manufacturing and changing fashions have made milliners an endangered species. But rather than being left behind by technology, Dr Margo Barton – one of the few people in the world with a PhD in millinery – has adapted with the times by specialising in 3D computer technologies. In other words, making virtual hats.

“As a craftsperson – a maker – computer making is a really sustainable practice,” says Barton, who began designing adornments for the head in the mid-80s for magazines such as Vogue Australia and Harper’s Bazaar to accessorise their fashion shoots.

And while millinery has become a less popular career calling, in part due to the mechanisation of the blocking and finishing process, she sees potential for a sustainable niche market for handmade hats, alongside bespoke shoes and tailoring. “More hat wearers would make more opportunities for milliners to do their milliner-ing,” she says, “which would make me very happy indeed.”

An ensemble designed by Barton that featured in a recent fashion exhibition. Photo/Fraser Chatham, New Zealand Fashion Museum Intellectual Fashion Show

The academic leader for fashion at Otago Polytechnic, Barton is creative director of iD Dunedin Fashion Week, which will be held from May 1-6. This year, the International Emerging Designers Awards – a highlight event – have attracted a record number of entries, with nearly 200 submissions from 22 countries and 56 fashion schools. Barton says that shows how highly the industry regards iD.

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“Designers bring their friends and families, a delegation, to a town that’s buzzing with people, to see what’s pushing the boundaries of fashion. They make connections and collaborate. Some even make hats!”

In the 90s, Barton launched her own design label in New Zealand and had a swimwear range, too – “hats and togs going together well”. Now, she says, “most of my hat designing and making is linked to my research, fashion shows and special projects for friends”.

In this small but impeccably-turned-out town, fashion pieces by Dunedin designers are constantly circulating via a thriving secondhand trade, a constant source of temptation if – like Barton – you’re on the hoarder spectrum. “I’m not very good at throwing things out. Finding something I’m planning to biff, I’ll end up wearing it to work, and realise it still needs me,” she laughs. “As Marc Jacobs said, ‘Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.’”

That’s something she encourages her own students to be conscious of. Clothes have personalities of their own: a saucy cocktail outfit or a floaty Carlson dress can change your mood, let you shed your skin at whim.

“I’m a bit of a magpie,” says Barton, who confesses to a particular weakness for 70s fashion. “If it fits and it’s made of Lurex, chances are I’ll buy it.” 

This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.