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.
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.