Horses were her first love. “As far back as I can remember loving anything,” says Sally Faith Coombs Steinmann CE/DS ’96, “I was totally absorbed in horses.” She didn’t own a horse and there weren’t horses in the Cape Cod neighborhood where she grew up (and still lives), but her family always watched the Kentucky Derby. And she read everything she could find about horses.
Today, Sally owns a millinery, Maggie Mae Designs. (Maggie Mae was a family cat.) She specializes in those brilliantly colorful, wide-brimmed confections that adorn the heads of ladies at the Kentucky Derby, the Royal Ascot, queen’s teas, and other posh occasions.
Sally has never been to the Derby or any major race. Yet she has become deeply involved in the racehorse world. She founded Hats Off to the Horses in 2009 to raise funds for Old Friends, retirement farms for thoroughbreds in Kentucky. (In the past, old horses were often led to slaughter.) She started Hats Off by creating pricey Derby-style hats for auction. The auctions to date have raised more than $28,000.
The hats she makes for Old Friends are one-of-a-kind and will never be replicated, and each honors a certain horse. (Sally also has a line of more mundane hats—Rosie hats, named for a woman jockey; Sherry hats, named for a retired school teacher. It’s a wide assortment.)
Sally has found that creating hats to honor certain horses has “literally changed my life as a milliner. … The process of making them is by far the most challenging and creatively stretching of my millinery career.” How exactly do you make a hat that honors a horse? “Research,” she says, remembering Wellesley admonitions. She adds, “I need to get to know each horse as well as I possibly can in order to create a fabric representation that reflects the horse’s individual conformation, spirit, and racing career.”
Old Friends gives her a horse’s biography; she checks online sources. She makes sketches and starts collecting pieces of fabric. And finally, “the design that is bubbling and simmering just below the surface will float to the top and reveal itself.”
The hats in her regular line sell minimally for about $200, for a “very simple but well trimmed cloche hat, up to $500 easily, depending on the trim detail. Then the sky’s the limit.” Sally gets her color ideas by wandering out toward the Cape marshes, observing the colors of great blue herons, snowy egrets, the sea and sunsets … and the “slice of light coming through the petals of mallows.”
Her path to becoming an entrepreneurial artist seems a winding one. In high school, Sally thought she would have a singing career, and she learned to play the sousaphone, piano, and violin. She entered the University of Massachusetts but left, overwhelmed, after a semester. Back home, she found odd jobs, like shucking oysters. Not so much fun … so, because of a home-town mentor, Sally wound up in 1992 in the Davis Scholar program at Wellesley. She majored in women’s studies and psychology—giving her insight into what women wear? Maybe subliminally. “Beyond specifics, Wellesley taught me to go for it. … I became an inquisitive, adventurous curmudgeon. If nothing else, it taught me to have a healthy backbone.”
And she learned to have the insight that could lead her to feel “I’m part of these horses’ lives, and part of the lives of the people who care for them,” and to use her talent to make a difference.