During her research for E.A.S.T’s next exhibition (for more on that, see below), group member Julie Topsfield discovered the story of Mildred Blount (1907-1974). This is Mildred’s story, as told by Julie:
Mildred was born in North Carolina in 1907. She was orphaned as an infant, and did not complete her schooling due to ill healthy. Yet by the 1930s and 40s she was recognised as a leading milliner for celebrities and high society.
She started work at Madame Clair’s Dress & Hat shop in New York as an errand girl. She became interested in millinery while working there which led to her opening a hat and dress shop with her sister who was a dress maker. Wealthy New Yorkers formed their clientele for dresses and hats.
In the 1930s she applied for a job as a learner with John-Frederiks the leading New York based milliner. They were taken aback as she was the first black person to have ever applied, she assured them she had talent, all she asked for was a chance. She got the job.
While working at John-Frederics, Mildred designed 87 miniature hats, representing styles from the 1680 to 1937 which where exhibited to great acclaim at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
After this exhibit, her career took off, and she came to the attention of Mrs David Selznick. This led to her designing hats for Gone with the Wind and Easter Parade making her the first black person to design hats for movie actors. Mildred did most of the work, although credit went to her employers.
Her talents and reputation continued to soar, designing Gloria Vanderbilt’s wedding veil for her first marriage in 1941, and in 1942 one of her hats was featured on the cover of Ladies Home Journal another first for a black designer.
She left John-Frederics and founded her own label in Los Angeles. By the mid-1940s, she was designing for Hollywood actresses as well as private clients, including Mary Pickford, Ginger Rodgers, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, among others.
Still living in California, she continued to work until her death in 1974. Her hats can be found in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California African American Museum.
E.A.S.T members are currently working towards their latest exhibition Transformation, which we hope will open at Braintree District Museum, Braintree in Essex in April 2021. More details will be available nearer the time.