Local milliner pins tradition and practice in museum winning piece
Fashion and FamilyCap creator reflects on hats and history

Local milliner pins tradition and practice in museum winning piece

Squirrel Hill hat maker is one of twenty milliners with art featured in the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Milliner Jennifer Copeland stands alongside her creation at the Kentucky Derby Museum. (Photo by Benjamin Copeland)
Milliner Jennifer Copeland stands alongside her creation at the Kentucky Derby Museum. (Photo by Benjamin Copeland)

Tip your cap to Jennifer Copeland.

The local milliner is a winner of the 2018 Kentucky Derby Museum Hat Contest.

Copeland’s selection, along with those of 20 others, was preceded by a request from the Louisville, Ky., museum to professional and amateur hat makers for entry into this year’s competition.

“The hat contest is a signature element of the exhibition which strives to capture the spirit associated with the landmark sport and cultural event that is the Kentucky Derby,” noted the museum.

Copeland’s piece, a “balibuntal straw beret,” paid homage to the fashion-forward Derby “with its repurposed horse bridle and red silk rose detail,” explained Copeland.

“Each element of this hat has been handcrafted, from the blocking of the hat form, to constructing the silk flowers and hand stitching each piece of fabric and straw.”

The design was Copeland’s second entry in the competition. In 2011 the self-taught milliner was asked by museum to submit a hat.

In response, I sent in a “very large and pink” hat, she said. “It was, I think, more of what people consider of traditional Derby hats. It had a large brim with little sequins and a large bow.”

That submission, which did not win, came from Copeland’s Squirrel Hill studio and by her own admission, “wasn’t [specifically] made for the competition.”

In contradistinction, this year’s entry was designed and crafted with a specific purpose in mind: the museum’s 2018 fashion exhibit, “It’s My Derby.”

“As an artist, your ideas change and grow, so this one was a lot different,” said Copeland.

Copeland estimated the piece took a “minimum of 16 hours” to complete.

The ‘It’s My Derby’ exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum. (Photo by Benjamin Copeland)

Spending such time on a creation is not uncommon, as factors such as the
embellishments, “how complicated the silhouette of the hat is” and whether or not the hat, or any elements relating to it, is hand dyed can all lengthen the process, she explained.

Years of practice, as well as an early introduction to the arts, have aided Copeland’s dexterity.

“These are just natural things in my family,” she said. “Everybody did something, even if not professionally. Somebody was drawing, somebody was painting, somebody was in metal. That’s what everybody did. That’s what I grew up around.”

As a child, Copeland learned to embroider from her mother, Sandra Schneider. Later, Copeland studied art education at Pennsylvania State University, where she graduated in 2000 with a studio focus in metal arts and a minor in art history. Following graduation, she worked as an art teacher for approximately five years before attempting a new artistic endeavor.

In 2009, after failing to find a hat that “really fit, I started making them for myself,” she said.

With encouragement from her family, Copeland began her business: Jennifer L. Copeland Millinery. Initially, it operated as a strictly made-to-order enterprise.

“A client came to me and we did a custom hat,” she said. “Then after a year, we started doing wholesale, selling to boutiques.”

From there, the business expanded and sold men’s hats. These days, apart from sales, Copeland provides repair services.

“So you don’t have to necessarily go out and buy a new hat,” she said.

Both in becoming a milliner and an entrepreneur, the learning curves were steep but worthwhile, she explained.

“With this business, I had no idea what I was doing when I started. Now I’m a businesswoman.”

Finding a balance between creating art and appreciating commerce runs in her blood. Copeland’s maiden name, Schneider, means “tailor” in German. Two of her great-grandfathers were tailors, and her great-aunt, Esther Heiss, of Pittsburgh, was a milliner (Heiss’ ads, under the name “Esther Shore,” appeared in several editions of the Jewish Criterion in 1960).

“When I started doing this, it really brought back a lot of memories for her daughters who live here and have always been very close,” she said.

Copeland’s aunts would “talk about her. She did a lot of bridal work from their home, and really when I got into the business my aunt gave me her [mother’s] stash of embellishments and things, so I have some of my great-aunt’s stuff from when she was a milliner.”

Included in Copeland’s inherited collection are the white gloves her great-aunt would use when working on bridal hats so the creations themselves would not get dirty.

When these and the other materials were transferred between the generations, it was an emotional moment, said Copeland. “I started crying when they gave it to me.

“It’s a very sentimental thing for my family, me doing this very much reminds them, they think of her,” she added.

With Copeland’s inclusion in the Kentucky Derby Museum, the generational memories are sure to continue, as she was accompanied by a supportive bunch to see the exhibit.

“It was nice because I got to share it with my family and kids who only see me in my home studio work environment,” she said. “They don’t see me in a store pitching my brand, they only see me making the hats at home.”

While traveling to Louisville and seeing the displayed hat was “a wonderful experience,” the entire ordeal has been “a little surreal,” she said. “So much of what I do is commercial. I associate artwork in a museum not with a hat. It’s not something I ever expected I would try to do. I didn’t think milliners could do that.

“A lot of what I do is preserving an art that is dying a little bit,” she added. “I feel very fortunate to do what I do.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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