Ah, the world of fashion. Millionaire designers having hats made in their mills for les filles, and may no maligner malinger near their pillboxes and pailles and felt, flannel, linen… But do you find milliner a more refined-sounding word than hatmaker, even with its clear taste of the mill? Does Miss Milly with her millions spring first to mind, and does the uncommonness of this word lead to a higher value?
The shape of this word could be a hat, of course; practically any shape, however liminal, could be a hat once you get into the world of haute hat couture. The illi could involve ribbons or flowers or feathers; the m may be the bangs and the n the bun at the back. Or it could all be something so much farther out – follow your fancy and go gaga; if you find the right fascinator you could be a mascot at the Ascot.
But whither should you follow your fancy? And what will you find there? A milliner’s shop may now be all hat, but a broader selection of apparel was formerly available. The proprietor may well be a proprietress; millinery is not a line of work that has ever been exclusively managed by one sex (whereas one would be surprised to find a female haberdasher). But the homeland of this business is unitary: the fashion hub of northern Italy, Milan.
We now put the accent on the second syllable in Milan, but it was not always thus; a half a millennium ago the English said it with the stress on the first syllable, and so sometimes spelled it Millen, Myllan, Myllon, and so on. And while if you are cooking a sauce that was first concocted in Milan you will call it milanese, the line of fashion work that came to be associated with Milan got its merchants called Milliners – now without a capital (but with much capital on the merchant side of things).
And why should fashioners of hats be forever identified with Milan? Well, why should women who are attracted to other women be forever identified with Lesbos? Why call conjoined twins Siamese? Do all our jeans come from Genoa or all our dollars from Joachimsthal? It just happens that Milan was the fashion at one time, and, despite the winds of change, the word was just hatpinned onto the language.