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Mountain Home Magazine

Hats Off to Christine

Jul 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By David O'Reilly

They call it the sport of kings, and its crowning moment comes each May when 150,000 spectators pour into Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville for two of the thrillingest, heart-poundingest minutes in all of sports. And wow. This year’s Run for the Roses was a classic. In a rousing come-from-behind photo finish, long-shot Mystik Dan edged out Forever Young and Sierra Leone to win the 150th Kentucky Derby. “A dream come true,” co-owner Sharilyn Gasaway exclaimed as she and her husband, Brent, hoisted the solid gold Derby trophy.

But the world’s most famous horse race is much more than a gallop around a track. It’s a see-and-be-seen social extravaganza that’s become the nation’s grandest festival of hats. Big hats. Playful hats. Happy, flamboyant, look-at-me hats. And as the Gasaways pumped their fists May 4 and kissed their heirloom trophy, Wellsboro’s own Christine Moore watched in delight from her seat on the track’s first turn. She had good reason to smile. The go-to-hatmaker, or “featured milliner,” for nearly all of America’s prestige horse races, Christine, fifty-eight, had once again “won” the Kentucky Derby. That broad, black hat Sharilyn was wearing in the winner’s circle was Christine’s creation. Bold yet understated, woven of fine sisal straw, it featured a grand silk bow displaying the Gasaway stable's black and emerald-green racing colors.

Even before “the most exciting two minutes in sports” pounded around the track, five-time Grammy winning country star Wynonna Judd welcomed a global audience of millions on NBC and many other outlets to Churchill Downs by singing the national anthem—while wearing an oversized top hat designed and made by Christine. Earlier on Derby Day, Christine awakened to a big story in Vogue magazine that described her hats as “iconic,” and three days before the race, the New York Times had lavishly featured Christine in its online sports section, the Athletic, with the headline, “The woman behind the Kentucky Derby’s most coveted hats.”

Accolades are nice, but the biggest payoff for Christine on race day was simply to look around. With a turn of her head, she could spot many of her creations. Bobbing through the infield, dotting the grandstand, lighting up the Turf Club and gazing down from Millionaires’ Row were thousands of her elegant silk creations, the royalty amongst so many aspirational hats: elegant bursts of coral reds, indigo blues, cotton candy fuchsias, dusky roses, and daffodil yellows, showing off like fireflies and conferring joy on Derby spectators eager to be part of the scene.

People like Eleni Hapsis of Huntington Valley, California. Yes, the woman there in the grandstand wearing that big pink hat with the great big flower.

“What’s the purpose of going through life if you can’t enjoy moments like this?” Eleni had asked with a laugh weeks earlier. The Kentucky Derby “has always been on my bucket list,” the retired physical therapist explains over the phone. And when her husband, Vasily, surprised her with tickets under the Christmas tree, “I couldn’t believe it.”

Only later did she discover what a fashion scene Derby Day is. Especially the hats. “I had no idea where to go, so I started with [an online] search for ‘Kentucky Derby hats,’” she recalls. “Christine’s name didn’t come up right away, but as I started to compare pieces on various websites, I noticed hers were much more elevated than the others.

“All were pretty,” Eleni continues, “but something about her work made them more personable. When you saw her style, it felt like it was a passion for her.”

She gulped when she saw the prices: about $1,100 for a grand, floral Derby hat; about half that for the slighter, more delicate “fascinators.” But her family owns a successful Los Angeles meat wholesaling firm, “and we had a budget. I said let’s go for both. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Flowers, Bows, High Tea, and Lobsters

Even before the 150th race, Christine was already as much a part of the Kentucky Derby as bourbon and mint juleps. She and her hats have been featured more than two dozen times on NBC and Fox. NBC Today Show weatherman Al Roker and Fox News weather woman Janice Dean both wear her hats, as do celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Katy Perry. (Al’s hats come from Christine’s Blake Collection of men’s hats, named for her husband, Blake Seidel.) And so do folks in rural northcentral Pennsylvania, where the couple has a home in Wellsboro.

While she and Blake have another home in New York City, she’s especially passionate about contributing to the Wellsboro area. She has a year-round window at Dunham’s Department Store, where she not only puts on regular trunk shows but offers an affordable selection of her caps and hats. She recently designed a new cape for the queen of the Pennsylvania Laurel Festival, and with her formidable knowledge of fashion history she co-hosts and judges the Victorian costume contest at Wellsboro’s Dickens Festival. You don’t need to visit Churchill Downs to see what the fuss is about. To mark the Derby’s sesquicentennial, the Gmeiner Art & Cultural Center in Wellsboro is hosting a show of Christine’s hats and design sketches from July 13 through August 4 (see

Tall, dark-haired, and endlessly energetic, Christine rides her bicycle just about everywhere, including the seven miles between her family’s camp near Hills Creek Lake and her home on West Avenue. When she’s not sketching a design at her breakfast table, she’s probably out in her garage studio making hats or on the phone with employees, vendors, and clients.

Christine’s leather beret and black knee boots might say “city” to some, but she grew up “farm girl” on six acres in the far northern suburbs of Philadelphia. “I went to school, came home, did chores, and played softball,” she says, sitting with Blake by their fireplace. Apart from high school theater, “there was nothing fun about it.”

Where she did find delight and inspiration as a child was at her family’s wooded, hundred-acre camp outside Wellsboro. Her mother, Carolyn, a social worker and artist who died in 2016, had named it Vert Dais, French for “green canopy,” and there Christine would gaze with wonder on “the beaver ponds, little streams, mushrooms, deer, bears, snapping turtles. I would look up at leaves against the sky, at how the negative space between them looked like lace or formed this flow. Or I’d see these bunches of little mushrooms on a log and observe the different shades of light and dark.”

Her abiding love of flowers, which figure so prominently in her creations, likewise began at Vert Dais, which her engineer father, Bill, still owns. “I would look at Mom’s flowers and think, ‘If only I could make those, I could mirror God’s creation.’”

Armed with a degree in costume design from Kutztown University, she landed a job at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, where she met Blake, a theater manager. He went on to earn a master’s at Columbia and became managing director of Adelphi University’s Performing Arts Center. He now serves as their firm’s brand manager, doing everything from handling news media, social media, and business partnerships to making innovative hat stands, drawing on his experience as a set carpenter.

In 1990 Christine moved to New York to join Blake. There she worked with Broadway’s legendary milliner Rodney Gordon, making top hats for Phantom of the Opera and many more shows, before launching Christine A. Moore Millinery in 1994 (hence the website name Among the firm’s first clients was the luxury New York department store Henri Bendel.

Christine discovered her artistic vision when she attended her first Kentucky Derby in 2004 and saw what a “Derby Hat” was. “I realized if I designed wide brimmed over-the-top pieces with my addition of elegance, my creativity would have no bounds!” Three decades after starting her own firm she would find herself creating the most celebrated hat of this year’s Kentucky Derby: a nimbus of 150 silk red roses floating atop a broad white brim trimmed in black. Christine “was making the roses on airplanes, in hotel rooms” even before she had a buyer. “It took me and my staff forty hours,” she says. There was talk of Miss America wearing it, but, two weeks before Derby Day, Louisville horsewoman Patrice White spied it at Rodes, the city’s toniest boutique, and pronounced it “perfect.” At $5,000 it was the priciest hat of the Derby. News photographers and camera crews followed Patrice everywhere. “Everything a southern girl could want in a hat,” Vogue magazine gushed.

“Her hats are just so feminine and ladylike. I can always spot them in the crowd,” says Patrice. She buys one every year for the Derby and typically lends out past years’ hats to family and friends. But she just might retire this year’s hat and offer it to the Churchill Downs Museum. “It was for the 150th anniversary,” she says. “It’s just too special to ever wear again.”

True, Christine’s the “featured milliner” for the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, the Saratoga Race Course, and the Breeders’ Cup, to name a few. But she’s an endlessly inventive maker of all kinds of hats, including men’s, an artist who labors at her craft all day long, often starting at 5 a.m. “For me, it’s sculpture. Hats are wearable art,” she likes to say.

She’s displayed her hats for years at Wellsboro’s annual Dickens of a Christmas Festival and Dunham’s Department Store offers some of her less detailed but no less stylish creations at prices ranging from $200 to $500—a relative bargain, possible because Christine cuts her prices 50 to 90 percent for her Wellsboro trunk shows.

“People will stop me on the street when I wear her hats,” says Wellsboro resident Sara Vogt. “She’ll put a hat on you, and you look fabulous.” A close friend of Christine’s, Sara owns about a dozen, and picks up one in a cloche style—a flat vertical crown on a narrow brim—to show how the ribbon around the brim turns into a realistic leaf.

“That’s what I love about Christine,” she says. “Her hats are never far from the way God made nature.” Sara’s mother so loved Christine’s hats, she says, that she was buried wearing one.

“I’m not super fashionable,” admits Amy DeCamp, a former longtime English teacher at Wellsboro Area High School, “but her hats make it easy to appear fashionable.” Amy bought her first one twenty years ago at a local shop, The Fifth Season, and now has about a dozen. Most are relatively affordable, everyday caps—“I wear them to the supermarket”—but she has two with broad, stylish brims for special occasions. She and her three young daughters even visited Christine’s workshop in Manhattan a few years ago, where, she recalls, they laughingly tried on hats topped with satin lobsters and strawberries. “They all looked so real,” she marvels.

Puttin’ on the Ritz

Christine and her five employees confect millinery magic out of a garment factory in midtown Manhattan, directly across West 34th Street from Macy’s flagship store. Her tenth-floor workshop is a riot of colorful fabrics in constant motion, vividly illuminated by bright fluorescent lights. The streets of New York were unusually quiet on Good Friday, but not so up here. Derby Day is always the first Saturday in May, and the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes would soon follow. She and her staff have hundreds of orders yet to fill for the many boutiques carrying her line, and for special order clients like Eleni. Her crew is working five days a week and will soon go to six. She’s already working seven.

“What are you doing next?” she asks Emily Zimmerman.

“I don’t know,” replies Emily, her production manager and fabric cutter. She shows Emily a photo of Eleni’s Derby dress—a floral print of mottled reds and pinks flecked with moss greens, mauves, and purplish blues. Emily then studies Christine’s sketch for the hat and her penciled notes.

“Queenie flowers. Backs are purple and blue with fronts in dress: coral and blue. Sheer horsehair. Parisisol.” Emily nods and reaches for a ring binder containing photos and specs for all their standard hat styles and flower shapes. “Our bible,” she explains.

Christine comes by with a domed, two-foot disc of parisisol straw. She’s already hand-dyed it fuchsia, a vibrant pink, but it’s still a blank waiting to be shaped and styled. All her employees can make a hat from start to finish, but Christine alone designs each one, and today she’s making Eleni’s.

She takes a seat at her high worktable and starts by pinning a cream-colored ribbon inside the crown. “It’s a sweatband,” she explains with a smile. “But my clients don’t sweat. They glisten.”

It’s 10:40 a.m. Emily has picked out the templates for eighteen “Queenie” style flower petals and is tracing them onto lengths of organza silk. Stiffer but lighter than silk taffeta, organza costs $35 a yard. Emily fits the templates closely to minimize waste. Christine marks five inches out on Eleni’s brim, trims its perimeter to length, and sits down at a 100-year-old Singer sewing machine to sew in the sweatband. Next, she sews a stiffening wire inside the dark red taffeta trim around the outside of the brim. It’s tricky work—the wire wants to pop loose—but she’s done in about ten minutes. An abbreviated sequence of her next steps shows her attaching a four-inch width of sheer pink “horsehair,” a nylon mesh that will run around the outside of the straw brim. She then cuts four long, half-inch-wide blades of plastic and covers them with red silk; these will form decorative loops that will crisscross over the brim.

Next, she plops the emerging hat—it’s starting to look stylish—onto a faceless wooden mannequin and steams the crown to fit Eleni’s head. Then she sews decorative taffeta trim around the outside of the horsehair, and twice steam-irons the brim.

“Do you want to put on the trim?” she asks Emily a few minutes after noon.

“I think you should do it,” Emily replies. Christine is fine with that, and scoops up the many petals Emily has cut to size and shape. She folds and bunches them and sews them with needle and thread into an enormous, multi-hued blossom, with mauves and pinks forward, and greens and blues beneath and behind. She stitches it onto the front of the crown, bends and angles the loops, attaches them, and holds the finished creation aloft with a smile.

It’s 12:35 p.m.

Eleni’s Derby Hat and black fascinator were in her hands two weeks later. “They were the biggest hat boxes I’d ever seen,” she would marvel in a phone call. “I opened them and went ‘Oh, my God!’ They were so stunning, even better than the pictures or the ideas in my head. It’s not until you actually have them in your hands that you feel the beautiful passion that Christine puts into it. They took my breath away.”

For Eleni, the two-day Derby weekend “did not disappoint for a second.”

“It was a reminder of the times when men and women enjoyed dressing up and getting out,” she says. “Everybody looked classic and well put together.” She and Vasily, who sported a snappy magenta fedora, “got compliments everywhere. I said to him, ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’”

Hats Off to Magic

If Christine’s 150-rose hat stole the show at the Kentucky Derby, her hats were also a showstopper at the 2023 Comic Con festival in Wellsboro, a celebration of comic books, fantasy, and costumery. Set up on her table in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church hall was a tall black sorcerer’s hat, worthy of Merlin himself. White lights dotted its tapered satin top, and creepy, scaly snakes slithered around its brim. Price: $1,500. Next to it a dozen silk butterflies hovered on slender wires above a wire cap, fluttering playfully when someone blew on them. Here, too, was a silk rocket ship blasting orange silk flames and metallic tinsel as it rose from a gray satin launchpad. Alongside was a blue silk teapot—wearable, of course—spilling pearls of water from its spout. But the piece de resistance was a dazzling two-foot tall, $4,500 confection called High Tea. It featured three stiff, fabric plates stacked vertically and bearing tea sandwiches, a sugar bowl, jams, petits fours, and strawberries, all of silk. High Tea looked good enough to eat.

Wearing a black fedora with purple ostrich feathers, Christine was at her booth when Samantha Chabala of Mansfield and her friend Jessie Harris stopped and ogled another hat, an oversized blue teacup of a hat spilling white flowers from its top, called A Spot of Tea. Samantha, who calls herself Samie, is captivated. It’s her favorite color—“periwinkle or dirty blue.” She tries the hat on. The young women giggle as Samie turns her head this way and that, but alas, their play is brief. Like the others, A Spot of Tea costs well over $1,000. They put it back and wander off to join her husband and friends testing new card games for Comic Con.

But magic can happen when hats are magical.

Unbeknownst to Samie, her husband’s boss has been watching. John Vogt—Sara’s husband—slips over to Christine, negotiates a reduced price for A Spot of Tea, and beckons Samie back to the table. “It’s yours,” he announces. She is so stunned she can barely utter thanks. “I saw how happy you were in it,” John explains. “I felt called to make it a gift.”

Samie will be wearing it to Jessie’s wedding in the fall. Christine is delighted. “Hat making stretches your brain. It’s a problem-solving adventure,” she says. “That’s the fun of it. And the cherry on top is seeing people in your hats.”

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