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Somerville, Philip Douglas Frankfree

(1930–2014)
  • Joanna Hashagen

Philip Somerville (1930–2014), by Tim Graham, 1994

Somerville, Philip Douglas Frank (1930–2014), milliner, was born on 12 February 1930 at 66 Hyde Street, Winchester, the younger son in the family of four children of Ivie Frank Somerville (b. 1901), bootmaker and shoe repairer, and his wife Eleanor Annie, née Dobson (b. 1906). He was originally named Douglas Frank Somerville, but always known as Philip. He attended St Thomas’s High School, Winchester, and was thereafter largely self-educated. After leaving school he had a spell in the merchant navy before becoming an actor in Australia. His family had moved from Winchester to Invercargill, on the South Island of New Zealand, in 1950. He moved back to New Zealand after his acting career in Australia proved unsuccessful. Through a contact of his father he then began work in 1953 with the Jean Hat Company. He found his true niche in millinery. He soon moved to the Star Hat Company in Auckland who sent him in 1961 on a ‘study holiday’ to London. In London he found a very vibrant social and cultural scene; he resolved to remain in the UK and paid back the allowance that he had been receiving from the Star Hat Company.

In London Somerville began to work for Otto Lucas, a leading milliner of the 1950s and 1960s, as sales manager and personal assistant. He then moved on to design hats for the Otto Lucas brand. He accompanied Lucas on selling trips to New York. In glamorous occasions, buyers were taken to the best restaurants and given private hat shows which took place on the seventh-floor suite of the Plaza Hotel. Lucas died in a plane crash in 1971. Somerville then set up his own wholesale millinery business. He supplied leading shops in both London (including Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, and Harvey Nichols) and New York (including Saks New York and Bergdorf Goodman), and other prestigious outlets around the world. He opened his own hat salon for retail sales in Bond Street in 1987. Later he moved his business to 38 Chiltern Street, Marylebone.

Somerville’s hats were primarily bespoke and made for private clients. Diana, Princess of Wales, became a client in 1986. Somerville became famous for the wide-brimmed, brightly coloured, and often daring hats worn by her. He said, ‘I was the guy that put the Princess into big hats’ (G. and T. Blanchard, 176). The Queen became a client in the early 1990s and for a time he was supplying as many as fifty hats for her each year. In 1994 he was awarded a royal warrant. (Rachel Trevor-Morgan was an apprentice to Somerville before setting up her own millinery business. She became a royal warrant holder in 2014.) He also had other royal clients including Queen Silvia of Sweden, the Begum Aga Khan, Countess Bismark, the Duchess of Gloucester, and the Duchess of Kent. His non-royal clients included Margaret Thatcher, Kiri Te Kanawa, Susan Sangster, and Joan Collins. He also made hats for female villains in James Bond films.

Royal hats were designed to complement the couturier-made outfits. It was important that the hats were designed to guard against malfunctions. The hats also had to take account of religious or cultural norms for countries to be visited by the royal wearer. Such considerations led to the blue and white turban hat made for the Princess of Wales for her visit to Dubai in 1989. This design proved to be highly popular, and Somerville remarked that Diana’s bold choices in her hats attracted many younger women into the habit of hat wearing.

Somerville made hats not only for royalty and celebrities but also for all women who would buy, or sometimes rent, a hat for a special occasion such as a wedding or Ladies’ Days at race meetings. Such hats could be from his ready-to-wear range and would be a fraction of the cost of the bespoke hats. Much of his business was conducted to serve Royal Ascot. He referred to his less illustrious customers as the ‘Mrs Smiths’. He recalled that he sometimes received letters from grateful clients who had worn his hats to great success and he was reported as saying, ‘It’s terrific, it’s very important that you can give people that confidence. You become a stylist’. He added, ‘I haven’t found a person who I couldn’t improve with a hat’ (New Zealand Herald, 30 June 2000).

Philip Somerville came across as gentle and mild-mannered, but his designs were bold and sculptural. He used strong colours and simple shapes to great effect. His interests outside business included travel, entertaining, the theatre, country pursuits, charity functions, and his restored classic Daimler Sovereign. For much of his adult life he lived with Rex Patrick Brazier (1937–1999), who ran a small haberdashery business in the East End of London. Somerville continued in his business until 2008 when he closed his Chiltern Street salon. He lived latterly in a penthouse flat in Kingsley Lodge, New Cavendish Street, Marylebone, London, and died on 14 September 2014.

Sources

  • T. Graham and T. Blanchard, Dressing Diana (1998)
  • G. Howell, Diana: Her Life in Fashion (1998)
  • S. Hopkins, A Century of Hats (1999)
  • New Zealand Herald (30 June 2000)
  • P. Somerville, autobiographical profile prepared for exhibition ‘Royal Milliners’, The Bowes Museum, 19 May 2001–30 Sept 2001
  • I. Seward, ‘Hold onto your hat’, Majesty, 22/9 (9 Sept 2001), 28–33
  • P. Somerville, ‘By Royal Appointment’, lecture, The Bowes Museum, 15 Sept 2001
  • Daily Telegraph (17 Sept 2014)
  • The Times (18 Sept 2014)
  • WW (2014)
  • personal knowledge (2018)

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in Majesty, 22/9 (9 Sept 2001), 33
  • T. Graham, five photographs, c.1980s–1994, Tim Graham Photo Library [see illus.]
  • five photographs, 1989, Parker Photography/Alamy
  • S. Clarke, two photographs, 1992, Rex Features
  • P. Brooker, photograph, 1986, Rex Features
  • obituary photographs
(1920–)
birth certificate