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 of the mid-20th century, a hat wasn’t worth wearing unless it was made by Otto Lucas.

Lucas was a London milliner famous for his elegant turbans, caps and cloches, often made of fine velvets and silks and decorated with flowers or feathers.

Her designs have graced the covers of magazines such as British Vogue and have been worn by illustrious 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 height of his career, he sold thousands of hats a year around the world.

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

Although his keen sense of style made him a prominent figure in millinery, Lucas faced challenges as a German-born Jew in World War II Britain and as a gay man in a country where homosexual acts were criminalized. He led a double life, flaunting a glamorous public image 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 about Lucas’s early life are scarce, but scholar Anna Nyburg has 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 likely worked in Berlin before moving to London around 1932. By 1935, he was running a successful shop on New Bond Street, known for its luxury 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 thereafter. Lucas himself was interned in a camp on the Isle of Man from June to September 1940.

After the war, Lucas’s international reputation soared. By 1946, he was exporting hats to Australia and traveling to showcase them, earning 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 trip to the United States in 1948, the New York Times described some of her creations: “a black taffeta, worn at head height and decorated with bows at the back”; a bonnet made of “green and pink striped satin” with “roses set into 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 such as Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, launched a successful line of affordable hats called Otto Lucas Junior, and showed 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 small like me, a big hat is essential: it gives you ‘presence.'”

Lucas designed special edition hats to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, calling them the “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 it employed over 100 people, including three designers usually 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 that he could be peculiar. “There would be arguments if the designer wanted to do something and didn’t,” she said.

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

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