“You cannot compete with the Crown Jewels”: This Toronto milliner is designing hats for King Charles’s coronation
Master milliner David Dunkley on his royal training, how to avoid a headwear faux pas and which coronation attendee has the best taste in hats
Toronto-based milliner David Dunkley is no stranger to designing hats fit for royalty. After training with the Queen Mother’s very own milliner, Dunkley’s creations have adorned heads at events like Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding. He even presented one to the soon-to-be Queen Consort Camilla Parker Bowles during one of her visits to Canada. This week, he’s trading in his Bathurst Street studio for a visit to London, where he’s meeting with clients attending the coronation of King Charles at Westminster Abbey on May 6. We caught up with the master milliner about royal headwear etiquette, some of his more unusual inspirations and what kind of hats he’s expecting to see this weekend.
You have a royal history of sorts—you apprenticed with Rose Cory, the milliner to the Queen Mother, King Charles’s grandmother. How did that happen?
Well, it was 2003, so I took a more old-school approach—I found her address and sent her a letter. I knew of her iconic hats, and I wanted to learn from the best. So I asked if she would teach me and included my phone number. She just called me and said yes. At first, I thought it was my sister trying to trick me, but it was the real deal. I had already studied millinery at George Brown, from the four Toronto milliners keeping the tradition alive, but after studying with Rose, the practice changed for me from a high-end craft to a high-end art. I worked with her for one to two weeks at a time over the course of nine years. It was an honour. I also got to hear her stories about Her Majesty the Queen Mother.
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What kind of stories?
They were quite charming. One time, many years ago, Rose made her way to Clarence House, one of the royal residences, to meet with the Queen Mother. They had a lovely conversation, played with the corgis. Afterward, she asked how Rose was getting home, and Rose explained that she’d be taking the Tube. The Queen Mother thought that was unacceptable. She had her driver take Rose instead. Rose also shared with me why Her Majesty wore the brim of her hats flipped up so high—she firmly believed that her subjects wanted to see her face. So Rose invented the custom shape that was so iconic to her.
One of the hats you designed for the coronation was inspired by an RCMP horse named Noble. How exactly does a horse inspire a hat?
I was in the midst of designing something out of vintage black straw, and it felt a bit too sombre for a coronation. Then I saw a picture of Noble, who is black and silky, and thought, Wow, that’s a pretty grand-looking horse. So I used the shiny black straw to create a miniature boater hat with an oversized brim. I added this magical grosgrain ribbon that reminded me of the leather bridle a horse wears, along with my signature silk rose and hand-cut feathers. I thought the whole thing was a majestic tribute to both the RCMP and His Majesty.
Is that in keeping with your usual design methods?
Yes. It’s organic, like all art. I start out with a specific inspiration, like Noble, and I use couture techniques to try to create something unique.
Will any of your hats be making an appearance at the coronation ceremony?
I have reason to believe they will, and I would love to tell everyone, but I have learned my lesson over the years—a woman sometimes changes her mind. So I don’t speak about it in advance, because it doesn’t always happen. But I certainly will have a hat at the coronation, with others at on-air celebrations and private parties. Part of the reason I’m in London this week is to finesse those hats.
Of the British royal family, who has the best taste in hats?
All of them have great taste, of course, but I’m a fan of Kate. She’s a beautiful woman, and she knows how to wear a hat. I can tell she’s not being styled by anyone else. She just knows what looks good on her, and she’s always bang-on. For example, the hat she wore to the Queen’s funeral was brilliant. It was a strong statement, and the veil covered just enough of her face to protect her privacy.
What’s your favourite royal hat of all time?
I think the feather crown Camilla wore when she married Prince Charles was the most clever use of millinery in the entire history of the craft. She couldn’t wear a crown for political reasons—the public wasn’t ready. But she needed to wear something because she was marrying the future king. So, to wear feathers shaped as a crown and paint it gold—it was spectacular.
Are you expecting to see anything that elaborate this weekend?
I’m not sure. The hats we’ve done are smaller and more reserved. They’re luxurious but not over-the-top by British standards. I suspect that, because His Majesty has reined in the celebrations, people will be following suit in terms of headwear. But, of course, the hat maker in me wants everyone to go mad.
For Canadians who may not be familiar, why are hats so important in British royal culture?
Hats are tradition, right? In the UK, it’s considered a traditional piece of dress, especially for attending a wedding or anything formal. The practice has waned over time, but for the most part, people will still wear a hat or a fascinator to a black-tie event.
Is it possible to commit a hat faux pas at a coronation?
Well, you certainly cannot compete with the Crown Jewels, so don’t try. You wouldn’t want to wear anything that blocks the view of the person behind you. And, since it’s spring, you would want to wear a seasonally appropriate colour. I always say, when you’re wearing a hat, you want to wear something that is first and foremost comfortable. If you’re comfortable in it, you will be happy in it. When I’m designing, I like to start there, and then we can play with scale and embellishment.
What hat will you be wearing?
I’m hosting a cocktail party, and for that I’m planning to wearing an opera hat. It’s a collapsible top hat—it helped break the tradition of men not wearing hats, because it allows them to tuck it away while they’re inside. I’ve embellished mine with gold sequins in celebration of His Majesty. I made matching gold fascinators for all the women attending the party, with miniature versions as boutonnieres for the men. I also want to finish off a 1920s-style driving cap using tea towels with Charles’s and Camilla’s faces on them—sort of a touristy one-of-a kind piece.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.