Gertrude Shilling, the Mad Hatter of Ascot, Turns Royal Heads with Her Toppers

UPDATED 07/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

Her Majesty was not in good disposition. After all, the sight of a mature English gentlewoman wearing a star-studded hat in the shape of the Olympic torch—with a ruffled dress to match—was definitely not the proper attire for the exclusive royal enclosure at Ascot's opening-day race. "I'm not having this turned into a circus," snapped Elizabeth II, according to Fleet Street. Even though the Queen Mum gaped, then chuckled at the sight, her daughter reportedly snipped that the chapeau was a no-no.

Undaunted, Shilling, 60ish, was back at it the next day in a hat shaped like a dart board, with three darts stuck smartly in the crown. When the guards began to glower this time, she scampered back to her pale blue Rolls to don a more suitable red feathery concoction.

Shilling, the wife of a retired British clothing manufacturer, may wear the hats in her family, but it's her son, David, 31, who concocts them. "I challenge anyone to come up with hats that are more amusing," says David, whose titillating toppers for his mother have been the talk of Ascot wags for 24 years. Gertrude has turned up in a towering giraffe hat, in a bonnet shaped like a TV set with her face plastered on the screen, and in an elaborate number topped with a monkey. "My mother has become the Ascot mascot," boasts David. "She's part of English culture, like the Tower of London and the Changing of the Guard."

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