'Heads and Tales' by Aage Thaarup

Danish milliner Aage Thaarup (1906 – 87) left Copenhagen in the 1930s and set off to conquer London, where he designed hats for movie stars and royalty. In this extract from his 1956 autobiography, he describes his first meeting with a very special customer.

A lady came to see me in Berkeley Street. She was Scottish and of noble birth, and she possessed one of these very large skulls. Hairdressing does, of course, from time to time make a difference in head measurements, but this lady's measurement was exceptionally large and her head was also very round.

She was a charming lady, full of good sense. Her voice was most attractive and her accent very charming.

Now when a lady is pleasant, service is always correspondingly pleasant. Naturally, if a customer leaves herself in my hands, I feel a duty to do my very best. On the other hand, if a customer comes to me and says, 'I know best', then my enthusiasm is dashed, and I feel that someone else in the shop can serve her just as well.

But this lady left it to me, and although I had some difficulty I think I succeeded.

Natural straw broad-brimmed hat with fabric flowers, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1965 – 69, England. Museum no. T.261-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Natural straw broad-brimmed hat with fabric flowers, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1965 – 69, England. Museum no. T.261-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I like to think I have been as conscientious always, and certainly I have had some outstanding rewards. This was an instance when I was to receive one of the loveliest. Out of the blue it came, as unexpectedly as it was esteemed.

I had long nursed a secret ambition to make hats for five particular women. For three of these I had already gained that privilege. Greta Garbo, whose great beauty entrances me, was one of the unattained. There remained one more whose pictures had so long interested and captured me.

The telephone rang. "Can Mr Thaarup be in at three o'clock to receive Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York?"

My kind Scottish lady had recommended me to the Duchess, now the Queen Mother. At last I was to have the chance I had dreamed about.

I put down the receiver, not quite in a panic, but not very calm. I simply thought I must make everything as nice as I possibly could.

I made my small salon ready, found a few extra nice hats. My stock was still not so very large; would the Duchess want a pink hat or a black hat, a felt or a straw?

Pink velvet cap, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1950 – 59, England. Museum no. T.255-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Pink velvet cap, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1950 – 59, England. Museum no. T.255-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Then, of course, there were the stairs. Everything was quite presentable, almost elegant up to the second floor, but after that there were bare boards. Quickly I borrowed a little strip of red carpet and secured it with drawing pins.

I tidied everything; went downstairs and stood in what I felt was a strategic position. I had never before received Royalty, but now I had done everything possible, and there was nothing to do but wait, as self-controlled as possible.

Mysteriously the news had already travelled across the street. A handful of girls and women were already waiting when Her Royal Highness stepped out of her car with her lady-in-waiting.

I showed the Duchess and her companion into the lift – so small I had to squeeze into it myself in order to close the gates, then pressed the button for the second floor.

"I'm sorry," I said lamely. "There's still a little further."

Would the little bit of red carpet look decent? And above, the Jacob's Ladder, and my little room in grey? The black and white matting on the floor, the chromium chairs?

Nervously I drew aside the tweed curtain draped across my stock cupboard. A pink hat toppled out, and the Duchess smiled. The cold spell was broken.

Hat of white organza daisies, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1965 – 69, England. Museum no. T.252-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Hat of white organza daisies, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1965 – 69, England. Museum no. T.252-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Whenever I recall that first visit of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, I remember that smile; that amazing flow of warmth. The feeling of sensitivity and graciousness that immediately put another human being at ease.

Inevitably a special aura surrounds any Royal personage, but Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother has a special power of making those in her presence feel happy and at ease.

I showed a few berets and some other new hats. I explained about the Jacob's Ladder, I excused the fire jugs. I think I even admitted to Her Royal Highness the borrowing of the bit of red carpet.

Then came the Press, the photographers and the journalists. They descended upon me not in ones and twos, but in dozens. Stupidly I had not anticipated this. But something warned me; I must be discreet. The questions came like machine-gun fire.

"Where did the Duchess sit? Which hats did she like? How many did she choose?" I fenced as well as I could. But that was not easy.

But the photographers took pictures of some of my other hats and the journalists wrote some good stories.

When the hats were finished I went to No. 145 Piccadilly to fit them. Again I felt the spell of Her Royal Highness's unique personality. A thousand photographs speak of her charm and her lovely smile, but no photograph can tell the full story.

I could be excused for being a little elated, for it was a real step up to be making hats for a royal lady so close to King George and Queen Mary.

(Left) Pink velvet cap, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1950 – 59, England. Museum no. T.255-1985. (Top) Ivy leaf hat, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1950 – 59, England. Museum no. T.254-1985. (Right) Hydrangea flower hat, designed by Paulette, about 1955, France. Museum no. T.247-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
(Left) Pink velvet cap, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1950 – 59, England. Museum no. T.255-1985. (Top) Ivy leaf hat, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1950 – 59, England. Museum no. T.254-1985. (Right) Hydrangea flower hat, designed by Paulette, about 1955, France. Museum no. T.247-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There was at that time no hint of the coming succession of King George's eldest son, Edward, nor of those other momentous events which finally led to the Abdication.

No dreams that these first hats of mine for the Duchess of York would lead to my making so many more for her as Queen of England. Hats that would accompany her on proud ceremonies in Kingdom and Empire in peacetime, or would play their part on heartening tours amongst her people during wartime. And again, more hats for her as the still beautiful Queen Mother.

In those days my hats were for the Duchess of York, a charming young mother of Scottish royal lineage with two small and lovely children, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, who sometimes would gravely watch the hat-fitting ceremony.

© Estate of Aage Thaarup

The complete Heads and Tales: The Autobiography of Aage Thaarup is now available in the V&A Fashion Perspectives e-book series from online retailers.

Background image: Pink velvet cap, designed by Aage Thaarup, 1950 – 59, England. Museum no. T.255-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London