- Nina O'Neil's hat creation on the set of Gossip Girl.
Gossip Girl cast a rare light on the little-discussed world of D.C. millinery in last night’s episode. Principal character Blair Waldorf spent 20 minutes with a fascinator—a small hat also referred to as a cocktail hat—atop her fancy head, courtesy of 30-year-old D.C. resident Nina O’Neil.
It was a great moment for O’Neil, who has watched her hat-making business unfold almost accidentally. Though she’s made objects her entire life, it was only a few years ago that she attempted to sell her creations to anyone other than friends of friends. “It was mostly me giving gifts,” she says. O’Neil set up an etsy shop and didn’t think much of it—she already had a dream day job at the National Gallery, working in exhibitions.
Then two years ago, a woman approached O’Neil in public while she was wearing one of her fascinators. “She came up to me and said who made that? I want to sell it in my store,” says O’Neil. The woman was Kassie Rempel, owner of SimplySoles, and soon the store was carrying O’Neil’s fascinators.
“It’s turned into a side thing,” says O’Neil, who sells to a few other vintage boutiques and “tons of bridal parties.”
Another serendipitous moment came last year, in the form of an “adorable email” from folks at Gossip Girl, who had found her website and wanted to borrow a few hats.
“I sent a box with everything I’ve ever made, essentially,” she says. “I didn’t really have my hopes up that it was really going to turn into anything.”
One day O’Neil opened her email to find notes from “pretty much everyone I know.” New York paparazzi had snapped photos of Leighton Meister, playing Blair Waldorf, on the Gossip Girl set in all white outfit with a dainty hat fixed to her head. The pictures were making the rounds online, with the fascinator credited to O'Neil.
It’s as much credit as O’Neil is likely to receive for her hat’s appearance on the show, as Gossip Girl does not compensate or credit the designers whose work appears on air. (O’Neil explains that if such a fashion-heavy series were to credit all the designers, the credits themselves would take 30 minutes.)
O’Neil doesn’t mind. She’s not trying to make a living off her line of eccentric hair accessories (she’s sold around 80 hats, at $48 apiece, total) and seems excited just to be seeing hats in public again. She advises inexperienced hat wearers to start simply.
“If you really want to wear things in your hair, it’s jarring for people to see stuff on you,” she says. She advises trying sparkly clips or headbands before moving into hats. “You have to work yourself into it,” she says. The fascinator is having a moment right now, she explains, due to the resurgence of burlesque and its non-matronly appeal.
O’Neil warns that though the fascinator can look “totally normal” (she herself is wearing one during this phone conversation) it is “conspicuous.” She doesn’t advise wearing it just anywhere—Smith Commons, she says, is a good place to debut a hairpiece.
“It’s a speakeasy and you should be dressed up appropriately,” she says. O’Neil also likes Rock N Roll Hotel or the Palace of Wonders for a hat. “It’s different from going out in Adams Morgan,” she says. “You have to try harder.”