From the 1930’s to 1950’s, a hat was a required accessory, and America was a leader in designer millinery. A contemporary of both Lilly Dache and Mr. John was another prominent milliner, Sally Victor. These three milliners were the “Big Three” of the industry during the period.
Born in 1905 in Pennsylvania, she learned about millinery working as a buyer for the millinery department of Macy’s, where Lilly Dache also worked. She worked as a buyer until marrying the New York milliner Segre (Sergiu Victor) in 1927. She became a designer in his salon where their hats were sold in all the best-known retail stores in the country.
In 1934, her husband gave her $10,000 to open her own studio in New York. Soon after it’s opening, Fortune magazine said, “the name of Sally Victor stands with Lilly Dane and John Frederics at the very top of American style leaders.”. Within five years, Sergiu had closed his own company and had joined hers. By the late 1950’s she was one of the country’s most successful businesswomen making $500,000 a year. Her studio on East 53rd St in New York remained open from 1934 until her retirement in 1967.
Her hats were sophisticated with clean lines and she was known for matting hats that were attractive, rather than avant-garde. In 1954, The New Yorker called her “a magnificent sculptress of straws and felts” whose hats were marked with “touches that are feminine without being unruly.”.
Her designs were influenced by art exhibitions and architecture. She created collections inspired by the 700th anniversary of the birth of Marco Polo, which had designs shaped like Asian lanterns, fans and geisha bonnets. She was also inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and recreated the Guggenheim Museum from straw. She was even called "a magnificent sculptress of straws and felts," by the New Yorker magazine in 1954.
She made hats for Queen Elizabeth II, Elanor Roosevelt, Judy Garland and her famous hat “Airwave” worn by Mamie Eisenhower at the inauguration. She designed several hats for First Lady Eisenhower, and later made pieces for Jacqueline Kennedy.
She also did practical designs for manufacturing including a beret for the Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II and a denim work hat for General Electric with an adjustable snood that confined the long hair of woman workers to prevent accidents.
She was known for being innovative and was particularly interested in making collapsible hats to create something for her customers that was easy travel with and wear. She studied Japanese armor to experiment with concentric and collapsible construction. She was also on the forefront in working with synthetic materials alongside traditional materials.
The Met Museum's archive in New York stores some wonderful examples of Sally Victor's hats, such as a concentric and collapsible straw hat from 1945, as well as hats in wool characterized by arty folds and pleats or elaborate ivory straw headdresses that are clearly inspired by Japanese armor.