A shimmering assemblage of tools, trims, and ephemera provides a veritable playground for preservationist Barbara Troeller. Amidst an extraordinary collection of couture treasures, timeworn hatboxes spill over with Edwardian plumes, silken ribbons, and bejeweled ornaments. With impassioned devotion, Barbara restores antique hats to their crowning glory.
Antique-millinery specialist Barbara Troeller remembers the first hat that stirred her heart. A gift from her older sister in the 1970s, the chic black felt 1940s cocktail chapeau captivated the then 16-year-old with its sophisticated form, sultry veil, and glittering rhinestone brooch.
The mysterious origins of the vintage find intrigued the budding fashionista—a curiosity that, to this day, is rekindled each time she takes a new discovery in hand. “I think about the woman who made this hat, the lady who wore it, and where she wore it,” she says wistfully. “I get lost in the passion.” That first hat sparked a love affair that has endured for thirty-five-plus years. The owner of the online boutique Rue de la Paix, Barbara has a private collection comprising more than eight hundred toppers from three centuries, with heirlooms ranging from lavishly embellished Victorian-era bonnets to more streamlined midcentury styles.
When she entered the antiques business over twenty years ago, her focus was unique: “Back in those times, dealers didn’t see hats as valuable at all,” she explains. “I was able to rescue a lot of rare and valuable millinery from being discarded or tossed into a toy box.”
Along with her obsession for hats grew a mission to pay homage to the visionaries who created them. She points out that many iconic fashion designers, such as Coco Chanel, began their careers in millinery, but their contributions are often overlooked. “I would like to see hats brought back to their place in fashion history,” says the entrepreneur. “In times past, if a lady went to Paris to order a couture gown, her ensemble wasn’t complete until she ordered a chapeau to top it off. I want to recognize the milliners who have been largely forgotten.”
Professionally trained at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Barbara is a milliner in her own right. For the past fifteen years, most of her design work has shifted from original construction to the restoration of hats for museums and private clients. Surrounded by exquisite creations, inspiring fashion books, and sumptuous adornments, the preservationist labors tirelessly in her Long Beach, California, studio. She demonstrates her commitment to historical integrity by using period-authentic materials in her reparations, down to the thread with which she stitches by hand.
Under the nom de plume Madame Babette, Barbara acts as a Victorian-era modiste on her website, ushering customers into a fashionable French salon and introducing them to the achievements of legendary Parisian milliners of the past. What began as a lighthearted girlhood infatuation with incorporating heirloom pieces into a modern wardrobe has matured into her life’s work dedicated to safeguarding a timeless art. But after all this time, does millinery still make Barbara’s heart flutter? “More so than ever,” she admits. “A simple little handmade Victorian flower can bring me to tears.”
From “Crowning Glories” in the January/February 2014 issue of Victoria magazine.