When I was a kid, I loved going to my great aunt Doris’ house. She had a lovely hillside garden with steps leading down from my grandparent’s house to hers. A rope swing with a round wooden seat hung from a leafy tree, ready for a spin. But the real wonders were inside. As soon as I walked in the kitchen (family and friends always used back doors in this town) I’d start spying her collection: cows. Every room had shelves full of cow figurines. Cream pitchers, their spouts bovine mouths. A cow cookie jar. I think she even had a cow clock. An overwhelming display of black-spotted white, with hints of pink udders. I was never invited to touch any of them, so I’d stand in front of them, marveling.
Her husband, my uncle Dunk, drove a milk truck, a shiny tanker with the slogan “Every Body Needs Milk” on the side. And because of his profession, collecting cows became Aunt Doris' hobby. I’m not sure how it started. But by the time I knew her, if someone wanted to get Aunt Doris a gift, they’d get her a cow. Cows were her thing.
I wonder now whether she grew tired of all the cows, but family and friends had given her so many she had to keep displaying them.
With the cautionary example of Aunt Doris in mind, I’ve always tried to keep hat swag to a minimum. Especially as much of it is so frou-frou: big flowery hats on brooches or figurines or silk scarfs. The Red Hat society has engendered a flood of red-hat-themed merch, none of which appeals to me. Neither am I interested in top hats, baseball caps, or cowboy hats (though I did buy some of those shapes of cookie cutters for my planned post-pandemic hat party).
I love hats, not hat tchotchkes.
Right now, aside from the cookie cutters, I have very few hat mementos, though it could be that I've forgotten a few.
I have a hat Christmas ornament I bought long ago on a holiday trip to Mendocino:
I sometimes wear a knitted hat brooch I bought as a souvenir in Uruguay. You can see it in the photo for The Black Hat with Pearls. It's not very large:
And finally, there’s the lady’s head hat vase at the top of this post. I saw one of these vases on Instagram and instantly wanted one. When I searched on Etsy, I found a bunch. Apparently, they were quite popular in the fifties and early sixties in floral shops. Unfortunately, most were of pink-hatted Gibson Girl types that Angela Lansbury might have posed for. Some reminded me of Marie Antoinette. But when I spotted this lady, I knew she was perfect. She looked like a sophisticated woman about town, maybe sporting a postwar New Look suit. I was coming to the “end” of the Hat Project and bought the vase as a commemoration.
The other day in a vintage clothing store, I came across a cute dress. Mind you, I have a lot of dresses, and don't wear them as often as I should. But I was tempted. I liked the pattern, of stylish ladies. One of them was wearing a hat! I held the dress up to me, dithering.
Then I thought of Aunt Doris, and her rows of cows, and put the dress back. Don't want to overdo the hat swag.
I got this hat in the fall, and have been saving it to wear at Easter. The Birthday Cake Hat and the Fortieth Birthday Hat that I wore the past two years are statement hats, as is common for the holiday. This year I opted for what I think is called a pixie hat
The hat came from the same Goodwill lot that contained the Camel Cloche, the Pink Turban Toque, the Brown Tweed Pillbox, and two other hats. I had been looking for a turban, so the turban toque caught my eye, but the hat that really intrigued me was this lilac one, with its strange dome shape. "That would make a perfect Easter hat," I thought. Yes, it was pastel purple and had flowers on it, but the kicker was its shape--it looks like a giant Easter egg.
Of course, you can't assess condition very well at the online Goodwill, and so, because I had built up my hopes about this hat, I was disappointed when it arrived to find it worse for wear. It was dented and its top had obviously been crushed in its past.
I wondered if I could fix it. I read up on restoring straw hats in my hatmaking book and watched demonstrations on YouTube. They claimed you could restore the shape of a straw hat by steaming it, reshaping it, and letting it dry, so I decided to try with this hat. I used a teakettle for a nice constant source of steam. The hat book said that after steaming and reshaping, you should dry the hat on a hat block, the wooden form that milliners use to shape hats.
I don't have a hat block, and even if I did, I wouldn't have one for this hat's unusual dome shape. So I did the best I could, improvising with a bowl.
Then I fired up the teakettle, ready to repair a hat in my kitchen. I held the hat so the steam hit the underside and gradually the straw became pliable. I smoothed the top, which previous crushes had made uneven. I tugged at the dented side. The hat seemed to be working with me--it was like it remembered its former shape and wanted to be back in it. The hat book and blogs had said this process would occur because of the stiffener that had originally been used to shape it. I didn't believe it, though, until I saw it happen.
When I had done the best I could, I put it on my makeshift hat block to dry. I was amazed at the improvement.
The dent was gone, the top a smooth egg shape again. I left it to dry in the kitchen.
This story doesn't have a completely happy ending, though. Because I didn't have the right shaped block to support the dome, as it dried, some of the unevenness returned. The dented side was fixed, because the bowl shaped it as it dried. But without support, the hat that had remembered its original shape also remembered the damage it had sustained. The dome puckered in the places it had been crushed. So, while the hat was much better than before the steam process, it was not as smooth as before it dried.
I suppose I could try again. Perhaps I could carve foam into the proper shape and use that as a block for the re-steamed hat. But this hat is likely older than I am, dating from the late fifties to early sixties. Like this hat, and people everywhere, I am carrying around my own record of damage, remembering crushing events despite how much support and care I've received in my life. I'm cutting this hat some slack and not expecting like-new perfection.
However, though perfection is not possible, renewal is. As the hills turn green and the trees leaf out and the lilacs bloom, I'm reminded not to discount the power of the earth and people to be healed. Even a dented hat can find new life.
When I was in high school, I had a brown tweed blazer I loved. I wore it with brown pants and brown shoes and felt that I was grown-up, classic, sophisticated. To me, that brown tweed jacket represented the advice I read in ladies’ magazines: buy basic pieces that you can wear forever.
Now I wonder why the hell I was dressing for forever in high school. Around me, my peers wore tulle miniskirts and ripped gloves, emulating Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.
Of course, I wore my share of jeans. I also had some black parachute pants (look it up, younglings!) with a cummerbund waist, which I wore with a tuxedo shirt and a black ribbon tie. But nothing made me feel both comfortable and grown up the way that tweed blazer did.
I might have had another reason for preferring brown in high school—with my brown hair and brown eyes, I could disappear in brown. Many times disappearing was my highest goal. Some other kids got sentimental about their high school graduation, but I hardly was. Bring on college, I thought. Bring on adulthood.
As I grew older, I stopped wanting to fade into the background. My Sunday hats were part of that—no one who wears a hat expects to be unnoticed, except maybe at the Kentucky Derby. I rarely bought brown clothing. You can catch sight of a brown denim jacket in The Floppy Red Hat and a brown tank in The Black Hat with Scarf. The vintage Pendleton jacket in The Brown Wool Hat was a gift which has become a favorite casual fall and winter jacket for me.
So, when I bought the online Goodwill lot that included this pillbox (as well as The Pale Pink Turban Toque), I no longer got excited about brown tweed. I could tell it was a quality hat in the listing, even with the lousy listing pictures. It’s by a company named Utah Tailoring Mills, which was known for their high-end suits. Movie stars and socialites wore Utah Tailoring Mills clothing. One of their vintage suits is for sale on Etsy for almost four hundred dollars.
Given the maker, I imagine the hat might have originally had a matching suit. These small pillboxes that matched suits were popular in the late fifties and early sixties.
Here's Doris Day in Midnight Lace, from 1960, suitably suited up to tell Scotland Yard she’s receiving threatening phone calls.
I can just imagine a similar suit/hat in two brown tweeds.
I don't own such a suit, but recently I came upon this vintage goldish boucle suit in an antique store and bought it on impulse. Although this suit is not in one my usual colors, I couldn't resist buying it, partly because it reminded me of a suit my Grandma Hillesland is wearing (with cateye glasses) in an old photograph. From the color, collar shape, and material, I'm guessing the suit is of a later vintage than the hat, but it's as close as I can come.
Here's a closer look at the hat, where you can see the contrasting tweeds, one on the side and the other on the top and the decoration.
I can’t say I ever aspired to wear a turban. Oh, sure, as a girl I mocked up one for a Barbie doll using one of her sparkly halter dresses. But for me, turbans on white women maintained an old-lady vibe.
When I thought of turbans, I pictured Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
Then I got The Beaded Slumber Cap and, wondering if it was a turban, started researching them. I came across some wonderful pictures of Elizabeth Taylor decked out in turbans. Here’s one that I didn’t use in the slumber cap post:
Another great turban wearer? Barbra Streisand. I remembered some of her turbans from her album covers (as a girl, I loved singing to my mother’s Streisand albums).
All of these women have a certain diva quality. And so I came to think of turbans, not as a sign of aging, but a sign of confidence. These are all women who can own whatever they wear.
Now more interested in the style, I started keeping an eye out for a vintage turban. When a small Goodwill lot of hats came up including this pink hat, I bid.
Of course, in an online Goodwill auction, you can’t examine the goods for condition issues. In fact, you can’t even be sure exactly what they look like since the photos are often poor and incomplete. Nevertheless, I bid on the hat lot (which also included The Camel Cloche), liking most of the hats and being especially interested in a couple of them, including this one.
When I got the hats, I discovered that this hat was more structured than it appeared in the pictures. Though draped like a turban, it has the underpinnings of a toque.
So maybe I can call it semi-diva. And maybe as I get older, I’m becoming a bit semi-diva myself.
This hat was made by Patrice, the company that also made the Hat I’ll Never Regret Buying. The bows make the two hats, maybe not sisters, but cousins. In fact, in style this hat is also similar to last year’s red velvet Valentine’s Day hat. So maybe it fits that this pink turban toque is my Valentine’s hat this year.
For years, I haven’t been interested in going out for a fancy dinner on Valentine’s Day. Too crowded. A pandemic Valentine’s will be right up my alley. Five years ago, still unpacking boxes after our recent move, tired and disoriented, my husband and I went out for pizza on Valentine’s Day. Maybe we’ll grab a pizza again this year and raise a glass to quarantining with someone you love.
My husband is wonderful. From the beginning of The Hat Project, he has taken all the photos with great patience and creativity. He came up with the mirror pose in The Black Hat with Pearls, the doorway shot in The White Bonus Ring Hat, and the railway background for The Blue Straw Hat with Sequins.
He has also been a very good sport about the hat accumulation as I’ve shoehorned additional boxes into our guest room closet.
This Christmas, he gave me:
The hat book gave me a much greater appreciation of the work that goes into a handmade hat. I am not planning to start blocking my own felt, but I do want to be able to clean and fix some of my older hats. With the recent Goodwill lot that included The Camel Cloche I got a couple of hats that need some love and restoration.
I gave him some links to hats that interested me, including this orange beret. At this point, I am mostly looking for types of hats I don’t already own. Though I love little black hats, I have a lot of them. However, because I didn’t have any orange hats (the closest was The Bubble Hat, which has an orange ribbon) I was attracted by this one. I also liked its materials. I have another Woven Ribbon Hat, but it uses natural fibers and has quite a different vibe. Cello straw (the artificial straw used in one of my grandma’s hats) can be very shiny and artificial looking, as it is here. But it was the sixties. Plastic was stylish! And thanks to its classic shape, this vintage beret still feels stylish today, as I discovered when I wore it to the farmer’s market.
Some other hat types I’m on the lookout for: I’d like a vintage hat with a lot of artificial flowers. I had my eye out for a turban-style hat, but I recently bought one. I’d like another green hat. As they say in the fine print, this is not a complete list. I figure I’ll know a hat I want when I see it. Hats, after all, are about love. You never quite know what you’re going to fall for.
Fortunately, when I fell for my husband, I fell for someone great.
This year has been different in so many ways. But lately I've been feeling that difference in a very specific way: I have had no holiday gigs. For many years, I've performed holiday music throughout December. This year, my only gigs have been virtual. Meanwhile, my Facebook memories are filled with past gigs. It’s pretty depressing to scroll through reminders of what you can no longer do. Performing during the holidays is so satisfying—you bring seasonal joy to so many. I especially miss performing at senior residences and care centers.
Holiday performances often mean special holiday outfits. This Christmas Tree Fascinator I bought specifically for performing. Because I exempted performance hats from my "I will wear every hat" rule, I didn't feature it in The Hat Project last year. But this year, as the ghost of Christmas gigs past kept appearing, I decided to blog about it.
It is not my first Christmas performance hat. When the Fabulous JewelTones added fun holiday headgear to our usual outfits, people with surplus holiday hats brought them to rehearsal for those of us without hats. I immediately laid claim to a tinsel halo, though honestly, I’m not sure anyone else was interested in it. It reminded me of church children's Christmas plays of my youth, where the angels--my usual part--wore tinsel halos. (I never got chosen to play Mary. Not that I’m bitter!)
I loved wearing the tinsel halo, but alas, it did not belong to me. Before moving, I returned the halo to the group. In my new location, I joined a trio. When we booked a holiday gig, I needed a new hat, and ordered this Christmas tree fascinator online. Here I am wearing it at our first gig, where we got paid in syrah wine from local vineyards.
For the past few years, I've performed holiday gigs with my ukulele group. Here's a photo from a performance in an assisted living center last year.
This year, I thought I would go the whole season without wearing this fascinator. However, my church's singing group decided to do a virtual recording of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" for Christmas Eve. When the leader specified holiday attire, such as Santa hats, for the video , I jumped at the chance to wear the Christmas Tree Fascinator and make a festive performance for Christmas.
Like most of us, I am looking forward to a brighter 2021. I hope that by next year, I will be back to singing and playing "Feliz Navidad" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" on my ukulele, wearing the Christmas Tree Fascinator and spreading good cheer.
Thanks for reading my blog this year, and I hope you have a happy holiday, whatever form it takes. And if you have a holiday hat, wear it!
When I finished The Hat Project with The Last Hat, I was tired of hats. My Instagram feed, filled with vintage hats, left me cold. I didn't think about how much I'd love to wear a giant cartwheel hat, or drool over well-preserved forties tilt hat.
Maybe the lockdown had something to do with it. Even though our county had a lower case rate and I could once again go shopping, or eat in a restaurant (not that I did), or work out at the pool, I felt glum. I couldn't gather with friends, sing in chorus, go to church. I hadn't seen my mom or any of my siblings or their children since March. Some days felt like wading through deep water just to work, attend virtual rehearsal, write.
Then, my friend Ann gave me a couple of hats, and suddenly hats became a bright spot again. I decided, just for fun, to bid on a couple of vintage hat lots on shopgoodwill.com.
As I've mentioned before, buying hats from the online Goodwill is a risky proposition, because you can't examine the condition. But I took the plunge and bid on a couple of small (five or six hat) lots. I ended up paying the top of my range for the lot I got (I was outbid on the other).
From the listing picture, it was obvious that the Goodwill people thought this hat was the most enticing. They placed it in the center of the picture, mounted on the display head. However, I knew this hat was least interesting and the least valuable. It is the only modern hat in the lot, a Nine West wool cloche made in China.
It is also camel and brown, not colors I am drawn to, partly because with brown hair and eyes, I figure I don't need more brown.
However, it is a nice fall hat, and when my church had an outdoor, socially distanced meeting, I thought it would be perfect to wear. Our county's case rate has skyrocketed recently, and restaurants and gyms are closed to inside use again. We even have a ten pm curfew.
Last year at this time, I was celebrating pie Sunday at church and preparing to travel to my in-laws' house for Thanksgiving. This year, the church met in a family's ranch yard for a discussion about when and how we can start having services again, since we have only had one in-person service since the March shutdown. My husband and I will be staying home by ourselves this Thanksgiving, roasting chicken instead of turkey, skipping the mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
But still, I have gratitude. My nearest and dearest are COVID free. I still have a job, food to eat, a warm house to sleep in on cold fall nights. And it was good to see my church friends again. Even though I couldn't hug anyone, and everyone was masked, we could still gather, and even take socially distanced communion with prepackaged single serving grape juice and wafers.
COVID has brought many negatives, but also many new experiences, like outdoor communion next to a field where sheep were grazing. The sun was out and the wind waved the aspen leaves in a celebratory gold flutter. And I was wearing a hat.
The first hat I ever owned was a cowboy hat. I got it at Disneyland when I was five: a brown, flat-topped hat with a string chinstrap and a picture of Donald Duck on the front. In our camper on the trip home, I sat at the back window and waved at passing cars. Most of the people waved back. Maybe that was the start of it all. I discovered young that hats attracted attention.
However, that was the last cowboy hat I owned for many years. To be honest, cowboy hats aren’t ordinarily my style. I used to have one that I got for free at Western-themed company picnic in the late eighties. The only place I remember wearing that cowboy hat was on a trip to the Grand Canyon—it was at that time the only sun-shading hat I had.
As I bought sun hats more to my taste, I got rid of the freebie cowboy hat.
However, as I mentioned in The Beaded Satin Slumber Cap and The Beaded Double Crown, while I was helping my friend Ann clean out her house after her sister’s death, she said, “If you see something you like, take it.” I was working with another friend, Marnie, loading Hefty bags with clothes to donate to charity, when we came upon a suede and leather vest and skirt. I was smitten. I loved its seventies vibe. It seemed about my size, though the tagged size of the skirt was two sizes larger than I wear.
Seeing how much I liked it, Marnie said, “You should try it on.”
I couldn’t resist. I slipped the skirt on over my clothes and found it fit. The fact that the size numbers seem large by today’s standards is one indication of the outfit’s age. The sizing charts have changed over the years, with the measurements for sizes increasing, so that, for example, a vintage size eight is more like a modern size four.
Though obviously a set, the skirt and vest have different maker’s labels, both from Albuquerque—the skirt Pioneer Wear, the vest Sullivan.
When I asked Ann if I could take the set, she seemed genuinely pleased. It turned out that it was hers, not her sister’s, and that she hadn’t worn it for years. (That is borne out by the torn ticket to an Elks Lodge Dinner Dance from 1989 I found in the skirt pocket).
She asked me to take a picture of myself wearing it. “Oh, there will be pictures,” I said, already planning to blog about it.
The other friends helping that day said, “What a great Halloween costume that will make!”
I agreed, even though I hadn’t thought of it as a costume, just a cool outfit that would be fun to wear (no idea where). Like the gold lamé coat I bought recently, I just wanted it. I don’t really see vintage clothes as costume—or perhaps I see all clothes as costume.
Unfortunately (and somewhat unbelievably) I did not have a hat to go with the outfit. The closest might have been the Forgotten Hat, which I had given away to a friend a few months ago.
So I decided to buy a cowboy hat to go with the skirt and vest. Of course, I was too cheap to buy a new one at full price. I visited several antique and thrift stores before finding this one for eight dollars. It’s obviously not old—just a modern, made-in-China hat, but I liked the lacy look. It was lighter, softer, and cooler than my old cowboy hat. I wore it to a Halloween zoom chorus rehearsal. Like The First Hat, I bought this hat intending for it to be a costume. But that doesn’t mean it ONLY has to be a costume. It would be perfect for wearing to the fair, for example.
I also put the vest to use as a pirate costume for a Fabulous JewelTones video. Like the hat, someday I’ll wear the suede outfit just for fun—not as costume, but clothes.
As I mentioned in the Beaded Satin Slumber Cap, I was helping a friend (also named Ann) clean out some of her sister's possessions when she gave me a hatbox. Inside was this wonderful beaded and sequined double crown. Since it belonged to her sister, Ann has no idea of its history.
When I searched online for more information, I found a few of these small beaded crowns for sale. My guess is that this one was a wedding accessory, perhaps with a veil attached. Here's a picture I found online of a sixties bride wearing one a bit similar:
When I tried the crown on, it immediately became apparent that it was missing the elastic, comb, or hairband that had originally held it in place. Perhaps that was lost with the veil. I rigged something up for the photo, though it wasn't easy to find elastic, since everyone is making pandemic masks!
I think the crown is from the sixties, but I am not confident in that estimate. Similar crowns online are listed as being from the forties to the sixties. As I've mentioned before, hats are difficult to date--you often have to go by style alone.
Sometimes writing this blog involves detective work, or just plain curiosity. In this case, I started wondering about Gigi Hats in Richmond. Fortunately, the hatbox had the address.
After doing some googling, I found another Gigi hat for sale with a hatbox from a different era. The store has been out of business for years; however, its signs remain. The barber shop that occupies the location has retained the sign on the side of the building:
Notice that the font is the same and that blue seems to have been their signature color. They also had a large neon sign. It is now repainted white, but here's a picture from 2012, before it was repainted:
It's hard not to see this picture as a metaphor. Hats, once a necessary accessory, have now declined to a niche product. Shops devoted to nothing but hats are rare and usually small. However, I take some positives from these signs. First, though the shop is gone, the signs are not. Someone has seen fit to preserve them as a legacy of a beloved local business, the same as my friend's sister preserved the beaded crown. And second, as my Instagram feed proves, many people like me are still interested in vintage hats, caring for them and cherishing them as much as the ladies of the past did.
Return to The Hat Project main page.
I recently helped a chorus friend (also named Ann) clean out her sister’s possessions after her passing. “If you see anything you want,” she said generously, “just take it.” As I was helping her empty one clothes closet, the other chorus members working in the house marched ceremoniously into the room, bearing a small hatbox. Knowing I love hats, they presented it to me.
The box was old. Whatever was inside had obviously held sentimental value to my friend’s sister. I opened it up and found, not a hat, but another special item of millinery (which I will be covering in a future post). After trying it on, I noticed the box contained something else, something blue satin folded in the bottom.
When I took it out, I discovered that the blue satin was the inside of another hat. The outside was white satin studded with beads. It intrigued me. Was it one of those fashionable turbans from the late sixties/early seventies, such as Elizabeth Taylor was famous for wearing?
However, when I tried it on and ran to a mirror, it looked more like a toque—in fact, it looked like a bejeweled chef’s hat.
So what was it?
I started a research game I called Turban or Toque, googling images of vintage hats (and discovering something called a "turban toque" which further confused me). I got out my hat reference book. Perhaps it was neither—maybe it was a tam? It wasn’t knit, and it was a little too floppy, but it did have the basic shape, the band, and a knot of beads on top in place of the pompom.
Flummoxed, I decided to call in the experts--The Fabulous JewelTones. On the weekly zoom call, I modeled the hat. “Turban, Toque, or Tam?” I asked. The costumer nixed tam. I got some votes for toque (“You look like the Pillsbury Doughboy!")
Finally, one of the jewels suggested it was a sleeping cap, such as ladies who got their hair done once or twice a week used to preserve their hairdos between salon visits. “My mother wore one of those,” one JewelTone said. “We used to call it her helmet.”
I had briefly considered that this cap was for sleeping but rejected the idea because it had beads on it. Wouldn’t it be uncomfortable to sleep with them sticking into your skull? However, I reminded myself that during this era women routinely slept on rollers, sometimes quite large and spiky ones. What were a few little beads to that, especially cushioned by a poofy sixties hairdo?
Googling satin sleeping caps, I found lots that looked very similar, though none were beaded. And this cap (as one vintage ad said) was clearly “Bouffant Size.”
When I wore this hat, I wadded up bubble wrap to mimic the bouffant that would have filled the cap. I imagined myself with an Amy Winehouse beehive hidden under there, ready to spring forth in the morning to conquer the world with Aqua Net-fueled, gravity-defying heights.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and nonfiction and collects hats. In this blog she vows to wear (not just model, but wear out of the house) every one of her hats, blogging about their histories and their meanings for her.