Halston: Milliner and Superstar Designer
March 12, 2022

Halston: Milliner and Superstar Designer

There are several famous fashion designers who began their careers as milliners. Halston, one of the first great American designers, is one of them. 

Roy Halston Frowick (1932-1990) was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1932. He rose to be an icon of New York nightlife and fashion and his clothing helped to define 1970s’ American style.

Halston began his career in fashion in 1952, working as a window dresser while attending night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year he started to design hats for a hair styling salon in the elegant Chicago Ambassador Hotel, and later had a shop on North Michigan Avenue. 

In 1957, at the age of 26, Halston’s hat making talent was discovered by New York milliner Lilly Daché and he moved to Manhattan to work as a designer and manager of her wholesale business. After a year with Daché, he went to work for Bergdorf-Goodman, a prestigious department store on Fifth Avenue, where he became the first in-house milliner to design under his own name. 

Known for his minimalist designs, Halston earned the attention of Diana Vreeland, editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, who called him “probably the greatest hatmaker in the world, an absolute magician with his hands.” His friends and clients included women such as Rita Hayworth, Liza Minnelli and Marlene Dietrich.

It was Jacqueline Kennedy and her influence on fashion that made him an international star. He was the designer of many of her hats, including the pillbox that she wore to the 1961 inauguration of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. The First Lady was not fond of hats and often wore her hair in the large bouffant style popular at that time. The pillbox style offered her a simple, off the face design that could work with her hair styling. Legend has it that she had quite a large head, which happened to be the same size as Halston’s, so he would try her hats on before sending them to her.

In 1966, Halston moved into clothing design. He launched a ready to wear line for Bergdorf-Goodman before officially leaving the millinery industry and establishing his own clothing label in 1969. By 1973, Halston Limited had generated around $30 million. Halston was the first designer to fully license himself as a brand and his influence reshaped the business of fashion. 

Known for being a star of the Studio 54 social scene in New York, Halston regularly threw parties with Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. He struggled with drug addiction and, after multiple sales of his company to new parent companies, Halston stopped working and went into a self-imposed exile. He passed away from an AIDS related illness in 1990, at the age of 57.

Halston’s works in millinery and fashion are iconic; if you are in the Houston area, the exhibition Hats Off: Halston Hats from the Masterson Collection is running from January 11, 2020–January 3, 2021 at the Rienzi Museum. It shows thirteen of his hats made between 1958 to 1966, some paired with their original sketches, as well as original head forms and vintage Bergdorf Goodman hatboxes. https://www.mfah.org/exhibitions/hats-off-rienzi-halston-hats-masterson-collection