As heads go, there's no doubting that Her Majesty the Queen is a big one. Head of the English royal family, head of the Commonwealth, not to mention head of all manner worthy of bodies, institutions and organisations.

But - and this should gladden the hearts of the nation's Royalists - it turns out our head of state does not actually have a big one.

"It's a slightly smaller than average, about 22 inches," says the gentleman who should know best, her milliner Philip Somerville.


"The average head is 22 and a half. The Princess of Wales was about 23."

Somerville - and there can't too many New Zealanders with a business card trumpeting, "By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen" - has been one of HRH's two warranted hatmakers for nearly a decade.

The loquacious 69-year-old makes between 40 and 50 hats a year for his most famous client because, as he says, the Queen is never seen without a hat. "And people say, 'What does she do with all those hats?' Wear them out, I say. They get damaged and they wear out. She'd possibly wear hats at least 10 times, and that's a long time.

"Most people would only buy a hat and wear it once and then they put it away in a box."

England's Queen is not the only blueblood he regularly crowns, however.

He counts among his customers Queen Silvia of Sweden, the Greek royal family, the Dutch royals (though not their Queen), the Duchess of Kent and - before her death - the Princess of Wales.

His non-royal business has come from the likes of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (including the royal wedding chapeau that Private Eye called an "air hostess hat"), Joan Collins, Dame Margaret Thatcher and hats for the last three James Bond films.

All of which seems pretty flash for a boy who learned his trade by accident and in Invercargill.

Born in Britain in 1930, but raised from an early age in Christchurch, Somerville at first dabbled in theatre in Australia, though he didn't tread the boards for long.

"I came back to New Zealand for a resting period," he says. "One does that in the theatre, especially if one is not brilliant, a job was offered to me by a friend of my father's who had a hat business."

That business was the now long-gone Jean Hat Company, which he joined in 1953. But he was soon engaged by the Star Hat Company in Auckland, which thought him good enough to send to Britain in 1961 for a study holiday.

"I went to Europe for one year, just to be finished, to learn more about hats and then come back. This was when everyone was going 'home' for a year."

Home, however, was just starting to swing as the 60s and popular culture and fashion went from drab grey to dayglow along Carnaby St and the Kings Rd.

It all seemed just to good to leave. A year turned into two years and eventually - after paying back Star Hats his weekly allowance money - became a lifetime's work once he fell in with Otto Lucas, 1960s couturier to the rich and famous.

When Lucas was killed in a plane crash in 1971, Somerville struck out on his own. The rest has been a long line of customers wanting to slap on a Somerville, with perhaps his career's crowning (with the exception of a knighthood, he giggles), a warrant as HRH's milliner.

"Hats were an accident. But I'm thrilled and honoured the way things have happened.

"Here's this guy from Invercargill and suddenly he's talking to the Queen of England or the Queen of Spain, or he knows Margaret Thatcher. I never thought I'd have such illustrious clientele."

Being a New Zealander has helped, he reckons. And he and his passport remain Kiwi, despite spending most of his life in Blighty. His two sisters still live here, and he spent time with them over Christmas and New Year before holidaying briefly in Auckland.

Of course his - our - relaxed attitude has sometimes caused consternation, like the time he sat down in a managing director's office.

"We were talking in his office about the most unlikely things, like theatre, and I was standing opposite him at his desk, so I sat down.

"He said, 'Ah Somerville, um, do you usually do that?' I said, 'What, sir?'

'Sit down before asked.' I said, 'Um, well ...'

"Then he said, 'Oh of course, you're from New Zealand aren't you?'"

Somerville hoots at the memory.

He believes in keeping his dealings with the Queen reasonably informal without going over the top.

"You don't exactly have to back out the door, but you don't turn your back on the Queen, obviously.

"But often I've put something on Her Majesty's head and said, 'Oops, I don't like that, that's not right.'

"I don't think she's ever been used to that."

Diana, Princess of Wales, also received the treatment. Somerville says he is the fellow who got her out of those twee little hats and into the classical stylings he specialises in and for which is remembered.

"She would call you to meetings, and many times it was just to have a chat," Somerville says. "She was a very outgoing person. I was much older than her, of course, and she treated me very much as if ... she had father complex, I'm sure.

"But my assistant always came with me and he was about the same age as the princess and they got on famously. Often they would be joking: 'Oh, Mr Somerville wouldn't approve of this.'"

He attended the Princess of Wales' funeral, and remembers with wistful eyes how proud he was when the princess' mother wore her daughter's favourite hat - one his hats - to Westminster Abbey for the service.

"The designers and the movie stars were in one section and friends of hers in another. Pavarotti was just to the right of me, Sir Cliff Richard was opposite me, and when it all happened I vow there wasn't one man without a tear running down his face. For all of us, it was terrific, very moving."

But Somerville's working life isn't all royals and funerals. Though his busiest time is Royal Ascot (or ass-kit, as he pronounces it), when he does up to 35 per cent of his business, he also does for who those he calls the "Mrs Smiths."

Although his top range of hats cost about sterling 300 ($NZ1000), Mrs Smith can buy his ready-to-wear range from about sterling 55 ($NZ180).

"You can't rely upon just aristocrats or the royals," Somerville says, although they do wear hats more than Mrs Smith does. Mrs Smith wears one for a wedding or a funeral, mainly for a wedding.

"I think this is the great thing of my success, that whether it's a queen or Mrs Smith, they've got faith in me.

"I receive loads of letters from Mrs Smiths thanking me afterwards, saying their hat was the greatest success, their daughter was wonderful in her's. I even received the top tier of a wedding cake once.

"It's terrific, it's very important that you can give people that confidence. You become a stylist."

But for how long? In his 70th year - with all his friends either "retired or dead or had strokes" - and comfortable though not rich, he could certainly afford to toss the Somerville hat out of the ring (although the business would continue). But he can't bear the thought.

He has the perfect set-up. His central London flat is just around the corner from his Chiltern St shop, so he can come and go easily. And he has "lots to do and loads of friends" to keep him busy.

Then there are his Mrs Windsors and his Mrs Smiths.

"While they still want me I shall still work, one way or another," Somerville says. "I think what I have done is given a lot of people confidence and made them look beautiful.

"I haven't yet found a person who I couldn't improve with hat."