Otto Lucas, a «God in the hat world,» had famous designs that ended up in British Vogue magazine

Otto Lucas, a «God in the hat world,» had famous designs that ended up in British Vogue magazine
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This article is part of Neglected, a series of obituaries about extraordinary people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, were not reported by The Times.

For many fashionable women in the mid-20th century, a hat wasn’t worth wearing unless it was crafted by Otto Lucas.

Lucas was a London-based milliner renowned for his chic turbans, caps, and cloches, often made from luxurious velvets and silks and adorned with flowers or feathers.

His designs graced the covers of magazines like British Vogue and were worn by notable clients, including actresses Greta Garbo and Gene Tierney, as well as the Duchesses of Windsor and Kent.

Otto Lucas was a household name in England. At the peak of his career, he sold thousands of hats annually worldwide.

“He must have been the most famous milliner of the 1960s,” Philip Somerville, an assistant to Lucas who later designed hats for Queen Elizabeth II, told the Liverpool Echo in 1984. “His name was God in the hat world.”

Despite his keen instinct for style making him a preeminent figure in millinery, Lucas faced hardships as a Jewish man of German descent in World War II Britain and as a gay man in a country where homosexual acts were criminalized. He led a double life, showcasing a glamorous public persona while privately seeking safe spaces for queer individuals.

Born on July 9, 1903, in Mülheim, Germany, to Jacob and Dina Lucas, Otto came from a German Jewish family. His father was a horse trader, and he had a sister named Erna.

Details of Lucas’s early life are sparse, but scholar Anna Nyburg noted in “The Clothes on Our Backs: How Refugees From Nazism Revitalized the British Fashion Trade” (2020) that Lucas trained as a milliner in Paris and possibly worked in Berlin before moving to London around 1932. By 1935, he was running a successful shop on New Bond Street, known for its high-end boutiques.

With the outbreak of World War II, approximately 70,000 Germans and Austrians, many of them Jews, were classified as “enemy aliens” by the British government.

Lucas’s parents moved to the Netherlands in 1936 but were deported to Auschwitz in 1943 and killed shortly after. Lucas himself was interned in a camp on the Isle of Man from June to September 1940.

After the war ended, Lucas’s international reputation soared. By 1946, he was exporting hats to Australia and traveling to showcase them, gaining international acclaim.

“When I design hats, I think of all the beautiful women,” Lucas told United Press International in 1948. “Any woman in the world could wear them.”

During a 1948 trip to the United States, The New York Times described some of his creations: “a black taffeta, worn at head level and decorated with bows at the back”; a bonnet made of “green and pink striped satin” with “roses nestled on one side.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that Lucas, “the mad hatter of Bond Street,” sold 103 hats in two days at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“What makes Otto Lucas hats different?” asked the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1953, adding, “There is no doubt about it, his hats have elegance but with a disarming charm.”

Lucas succinctly described his method to The Sydney Morning Herald in 1955: “I regard hat making as an art and a science.”

In 1961, Lucas became a naturalized British citizen. He supplied hats to luxury department stores like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, launched a successful line of affordable hats called Otto Lucas Junior, and showcased his designs at London Fashion Week.

“Hats are my crazy extravagance, I buy several a year from Otto Lucas,” Beryl Maudling, a former actress and dancer, told The Daily Herald in 1963. “But when you’re as small as I am, a big hat is essential: it gives you ‘presence.’”

Lucas designed special editions of hats to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, naming them “Tiara,” “Dream Princess,” and “Crown Jewels.” He also created lines for female athletes during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

By the 1950s, he employed over 100 people, including three designers typically hired from Paris.

Carole Cornish, a graphic designer who made hats for Lucas in 1964 and 1965, described him in an interview as “very clever” and “not unpleasant,” but noted he could be peculiar. “There would be arguments if the designer wanted to do something and didn’t do it,” she said.

However, Cornish also mentioned that working for Lucas could be exciting, especially when the royal family visited the showroom.

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