When Richard St. Clair was charged with creating the hats for Penn State Centre Stage’s production of Titanic, he didn’t simply fall back on his 30 years of experience to get the job done. In May 2015, he took an intensive two-week course in millinery at the Arts University of Bournemouth, England, during which he produced four hats from the “Titanic era,” one of which is being used in the show. His trip was funded by an Individual Faculty Grant from the Institute for the Arts and Humanities.
“I have a great deal of experience in hat-making, but wanted to learn more and to concentrate specifically on the larger hats of the period,” said St. Clair, head of Penn State’s B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs in costume design. “The folks at Bournemouth created a course for me that built on my existing abilities, and gave me a new vocabulary of skills to use for both future teaching and this production.”
For Titanic, St. Clair collaborated with the show’s costume designer, Shelby Luke, a third-year M.F.A. Costume Design candidate, who gave him a combination of sketches and research of the hats she wanted to be built for the production. St. Clair spent seven weeks producing eight hats from scratch, in addition to repurposing six more. He worked closely with Luke to develop hats that matched her vision, down to the color of a feather or the size of a bow. After falling in love with one of the hats St. Clair made in England—an asymmetrical black number with feathers and sequins—Luke designed a costume around it.
While at Bournemouth, St. Clair worked in fabric-covered buckram and braided straw, materials frequently used for hats in 1910–12. The hats of the era were typically large and adorned with ostrich feathers, ribbon bows and flowers.
St. Clair made his first hat out of cardboard for a high school production of The Crucible. He dabbled in hat-making while an undergrad in costume design at Penn State in the 1970s. “I was assigned the ladies’ hats for HMS Pinafore because nobody else knew how to do it,” he said.
As a young designer, St. Clair made hats on the side for productions at the Roundabout and the New York City Opera. “Working professionally in the theatre, it is good to be able to multitask, so my hat-making skills often came in handy.”
He expanded on those skills when building the elaborate hats for Titanic. “The hats I made for Titanic utilized both the skills I had learned over the years by being a mostly self-taught hat maker, and the new skills I learned at Bournemouth,” said St. Clair. “The beauty of working in the theatre is, as an artisan, you’re always learning something new, so even if a show is a period you have done before, the designs and intentions and materials are completely different.”
During the academic year, St. Clair juggles his teaching and costume-related duties. So he was grateful for the opportunity to spend two weeks focusing on hat-making at the Arts University of Bournemouth. “The best part was being left alone for 80 hours to concentrate on learning something new. Just wonderful.”
View a gallery of St. Clair's hats here.
Titanic runs through Oct. 17 in the Pavilion Theatre. For tickets, visit https://theatre.psu.edu/titanic.