Otto Lucas, a “God in the world of hats”, had famous designs that ended up in British Vogue magazine

This article is part of Neglecteda series of obituaries about extraordinary people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, were not reported in The Times.

For many fashionable women of the mid-20th century, no hat was worth wearing unless it was made by Otto Lucas.

A London-based milliner, Lucas designed chic turbans, caps and cloches, often made from luxurious velvets and silks and adorned with flowers or feathers.

His designs graced the covers of magazines such as British Vogue and the heads of clients who reportedly included actresses Greta Garbo and Gene Tierney, as well as the Duchesses of Windsor and Kent.

The name Otto Lucas was ubiquitous in England. At the height of his success, he sold thousands of hats every 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 God in the world of hair”.

Yet while his keen instinct for style and trends made him a leading name in millinery, he struggled as a German-born Jew in World War II Britain and as a gay man in a country that criminalized homosexual acts. He lived something of a double life, flaunting a glamorous lifestyle to the outside world while privately seeking out safe havens for queer people.

Otto Lucas was born on July 9, 1903 in Mülheim, Germany, to Jacob and Dina Lucas, both German Jews. His father was a horse dealer. He had one sister, Erna.

Details of Lucas's early life are scarce, but scholar Anna Nyburg wrote in “The Clothes on Our Backs: How Refugees From Nazism Revitalized the British Fashion Trade” (2020) that he trained as a milliner in Paris and may have worked in Berlin before moving to London around 1932. Three years later he was running a successful shop on New Bond Street, known for its high-end boutiques.

With the outbreak of World War II, approximately 70,000 Germans and Austrians, many of them Jews, were classified as “enemy aliens” under the British government.

Lucas's parents, who left Germany for the Netherlands in 1936, were deported to Auschwitz in 1943 and were killed there shortly thereafter. Lucas was interned in a camp on the Isle of Man from June to September 1940.

Once the war ended, Lucas' international reputation exploded. By 1946 he was exporting shipments of hats to Australia and began traveling to display them, earning him international attention.

“I think of all the beautiful women” when I design hats, 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 flat on the head and bunched with bows at the back”; a cap of “green and pink striped satin” with “roses nestling on 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, his hats have elegance but with a disarming charm.”

Lucas described his method succinctly 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, where he supplied hats to luxury department stores such as Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, launched a highly successful line of more affordable hats called Otto Lucas Junior, and showed his designs at London Fashion Week.

“Hats are my crazy extravagance, I buy several every year from Otto Lucas,” Beryl Maudling, a former actress and dancer, told the Daily Herald in 1963. “But when you're little like me, a statement hat is essential – it gives you 'presence.'”

Lucas designed special editions of hats to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, giving them names such as “Tiara”, “Dream Princess” and “Crown Jewels”, and created lines for female athletes during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

By the 1950s he had a staff of over 100, including three designers who were usually hired from Paris.

Carole Cornish, a graphic designer who made hats for Lucas in 1964 and 1965, said in an interview that he was “very clever” and “not unpleasant,” but could be peculiar. “There would be arguments if the designer wanted to do something and didn't do it,” she said.

But, Cornish said, working in his business could be exciting, especially when the royal family visited the showroom. “We felt quite privileged to work for such a powerful man,” he said.

It all resulted in huge financial success. Rolf Andersen, Lucas' partner for about 10 years, told Nyburg in an interview for “The Clothes on Our Backs” that Lucas wore tailored suits, drank a lot of champagne and was driven around in a Rolls-Royce. The couple lived in an elegant part of London with two poodles, Olga and Whiskey, and had a country house in Kent, in the south-east of England, with acres and acres of sumptuous gardens.

Although homosexual acts were criminalized in Britain until 1967, Cornish said she and others who worked for Lucas were aware he was gay. Lucas was also a mainstay of the Colony Room Club, a hangout for artists and bohemians in London's Soho district that welcomed gay men and lesbians, and was a close friend of the owner, Muriel Belcher, a lesbian who was quite open about her sexuality.

Lucas died in a plane crash in Belgium on October 2, 1971, while en route from London to Salzburg, Austria. All 55 passengers and eight crew members died, according to news reports, due to mechanical failure. Lucas was 68.

An article in a British newspaper announced that Lucas' estate, totaling approximately £150,000 after taxes (about $2.3 million in today's dollars), had been left to Andersen. His business was liquidated in 1972.

By some estimates, Lucas sold 55,000 hats in his final year, said Lucie Whitmore, the lead curator of “Fashion City,” an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands on Jewish contributions to British fashion that included a section on Lucas. His designs can still be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and occasionally pop up on eBay. But for the most part, Whitmore said, after his death, “his name disappears very quickly.”

Lucas might not have been surprised.

“Fashion moves ahead of the times,” he told The Morning Herald in 1960. “It is vivid, vital, ever-changing. We milliners don't worry about anything that happened yesterday.”

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