One of the most beautiful things about fiber arts is that their survival depends on being passed down from generation to generation.
For sectors such as millinery, sewing, knitting, crochet and lacemaking, it is essential that young people learn the complex skills that previous generations have developed over centuries.
Rick McGill, 77, is a master milliner. Kirrilly Webb, 19, is studying for a fashion technology diploma at TAFE and dreams of a career that echoes her own, but fears it won’t be achievable.
The latest season of ABC iview’s Teen Retreat invites us to witness this age-old practice of learning the arts from older masters, bringing Rick and Kirrilly together to teach/learn the art of hat making.
I grew up in a very working-class family in South Melbourne.
I was a strange child. I knew I was gay, but I didn’t know how to say it. I knew I loved opera and wanted fabulous things in my life.
People are born to do different things and my partner says I was born to be a dress fairy. (Laughs).
I started working as a tailor in 1962 and was married to a wonderful woman for 10 years, who introduced me to millinery.
And now I have been a milliner for over 50 years.
My philosophy is that life is a series of journeys
All of these things that happen to you in life are the things that create who you are, and on these journeys you meet people who come into your life to teach you a lesson, or for you to teach them a lesson.
Thanks to my travels, I have made hats for many series and many films. I’ve worked with some of the most amazing creative people on this planet.
Career highlights have been numerous. I made two Star Wars films, I filmed Moulin Rouge where I was very spoiled and I was able to create some hairstyles for Nicole Kidman.
One of them was a helmet (Indian inspired) that had been photographed from behind with all this light shining through it, and it was just breathtaking.
I have directed major Australian musical productions such as Aladdin, Frozen and My Fair Lady.
And I’m still working at 77
I was truly lucky to have had the life I had – and I still have it!
I worked in an industry that brought me the greatest joy a human being can have. Not many people get the chance to do that.
Sometimes I hate making hats! Especially when you get to the end and you’re like, “Aren’t you going to fucking leave?”
But generally, the act of creation is very therapeutic. Doing something takes you to a very different place.
This is why I think everyone should have craft skills, and why I think a 19 year old like Kirrilly who wants to learn how to make hats is truly wonderful.
It’s always nice to pass on knowledge. And it’s exciting to see the hats through the eyes of a young person – to see the joy in them.
I was always the weird kid who played pretend and described in a very complex way the imaginary costume the character was wearing.
And I always loved seeing the finished product of my own designs. It’s such a satisfying feeling.
I hope to pursue a career in the costume industry, and millinery is an area that interests me greatly, so having the chance to work with such an experienced costume designer is so exciting.
People have strange ideas about (older) age meaning incompetence. But when you have this much experience in the industry, you are very competent.
Rick really broke the (stereotype) we had built about age for me. When you see the things he created, there are so many beautiful works — in the form of a hat!
I hope I can do something like the work he did during my career. It’s a bit of a dream.
And I hope that I will be as joyful in my life when I am 77 years old.
I feel like I’m a little braver after meeting Rick
This particular industry may seem unattainable, but this experience has helped me understand that it is not as far away as one might think.
Rick definitely taught me more than I taught him – but I did teach him some slang.
And I will absolutely wear the hat we made together. In a world where a lot of manufacturing is outsourced and everything is automated, it’s so cool to create something with your two little hands.
You can watch Adolescent Retirement Home on ABC iview.
Quotes lightly edited for clarity and brevity.