"Are you going to buy a hat while you're in England?"
The question first came up when I was buying the black hat with pearls. While I was chatting with the antique store owner, I told her I was going with my chorus to England in the summer.
“Oh, you need to buy a hat while you’re there,” she said. “They have the best hats! Whole stores that sell nothing but hats!”
“How would I get a hat home?’ I said, shaking my head.
She looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s the BEST PLACE to buy a hat.”
“I guess I could wear it home on the plane.” I imagined one of those Ascot-sized hats crowding my neighbors in a coach seat.
“Yes, or put it in your carry on,” she answered.
She was serious, I realized. To her, if you liked hats and went to England, it was a criminal waste not to buy a hat.
Later, while I was talking with the director of our chorus (I’d shown up to her recital wearing the woven ribbon hat), she said, “We should go hat shopping in Bath. We should get Bath hats.”
“How would I get a hat home?”
She looked at me like I was crazy.
Most of my hats are supremely impractical. They’re fragile. They don’t shade my eyes or keep my head warm. So I think everyone was surprised that I took such a practical approach to hat acquisition. But, imagining a hat box bouncing against my side as I ran for a plane, and how I’d worry that even in a box it would be crushed in an overhead bin, I couldn’t see that transporting a hat from England would be fun. And I didn’t want to ship it. If I bought a hat, I wanted to wear it while in England. then when would I find time to ship it home myself?
However, all these conversations got me thinking. As part of the tour, we were scheduled to have a cream tea in Bath. That might be the perfect time to bust out a hat, whether purchased there or carried from home. I started to look on buying and/or wearing a hat in England as more of an opportunity than a burden.
As the trip got closer and more people asked me about my hat plans, my answer changed. Asked if I was going to bring a hat, I said, “I’ll bring the hat I always bring while traveling. And, maybe a little vintage one for tea.”
“Ooh, a hat for tea!”
My answer about buying a hat also changed. Instead of an instant refusal, my standard answer became, “Maybe a little fascinator. Something easy to transport.”
In the end, I packed a little vintage hat in case I didn’t have time to shop or didn’t find a hat I liked, so I could wear a hat to tea. And I hatched a plan to shop for a hat in Bath. I had a fantasy—I’d go to a thrift or vintage store and find a little vintage hat, maybe a ring hat or a simple cap small enough to slip into my luggage. I figured so many people wore hats in England, their supply of used hats would be good.
Because we had free time in Bath, I scouted thrift stores, vintage stores, and hat stores online. I found a vintage store that was close to our hotel and sounded fabulous. I also located a hat shop in the neighborhood. I marked a map and was ready when we arrived in the city. However, when I looked up the address of the perfect vintage store I’d selected, I noticed for the first time that it was closed on Mondays. And wouldn’t you know, our only day in Bath was a Monday.
After our morning Bath walking tour, my husband and I went by the vintage clothing store (tucked into an alley) and though it looked amazing, it was, as advertised, closed. We passed a secondhand shop that was also closed.
But the hat store was open, a little cave of treasures. The store arranged the hats by color, so it was like walking into a rainbow. I told the shopkeeper that I was after a small hat I could fit into my suitcase. She told me to avoid the ones with “quills” as the long feathers didn’t travel well, but that the little feathery bits on long stems would spring back if compressed.
I tried on some blue hats, though I already have several. I was also drawn to a lovely leaf green one the size of a turkey platter. “Small,” I reminded myself. “Small.”
At the front of the store was a rack of small fascinators on hair bands (or, as the shopkeeper called them “Alice bands.”) The smallest hats in the store. I tried one on and found that even the smallest hat made an impact. I bought this red one.
I wore it back to the hotel, then to tea. Though it wasn’t quite the vintage hat of my vision, I was still living the hat dream. And snuggled into a box, padded by extra socks, the hat made it home just fine in my suitcase. Why had I worried so much about transportation? I must have been crazy. Next time, I'm not only buying a hat, I'm buying a bigger one.
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In a way, I started this blog because of the world traveler hat.
A few years ago, a small press had an essay call with the prompt Me in a Hat. I wrote an essay about buying this hat in Prague and how it changed my outlook. (This is the trip for which I bought the MVP hat, before deciding it was too delicate to travel).
When I first started thinking about this blog, in which I would wear every hat and tell its story, I thought of that essay as a model. Not all my hats have an interesting origin story, but I wanted to write an autobiography in hats, describing what the hats had meant for me in my life, not only the circumstances under which I bought them.
In that first essay about this hat, I wrote that wearing it made me feel more like the world traveler I longed to be, instead of the somewhat scared and lonely first-time visitor to Europe.
In the years since I bought the hat, because it is so light and packable, I've brought it on many trips. In fact, I seldom wear it when I'm at home, so this hat always means travel for me.
I recently went to England and France, where I wore the hat to ward off the surprisingly warm and sunny weather.
I've taken this hat on just about every overseas trip. I don't always have pictures of myself in it, but here are a few:
When I initially bought the hat in Prague, it was not only my first overseas trip, but the first city of the first overseas trip. I felt very uncertain. In the essay, I write: "The city looks different from under a hat. I feel more like the sophisticated jet setter in my imagination, alive to new experiences." I've had the good fortune to go overseas again several times. And if I'm not completely the sophisticated, confident world traveler I imagined myself becoming after purchasing this hat, I can look back all the places this hat has been with me and know that I've come a long way.
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“That’s a real knife!”
Not the reaction I’d hoped for when I planned my Halloween costume. I was the mysterious woman dressed in black, a hat’s heavy veil hiding my face. And yes, I was carrying a knife. Of sorts. “I got it at Target for like, three bucks. I doubt it will cut anything.”
My coworker looked dubious. Obviously, she didn’t understand my costume.
The company I worked for just after college sometimes seemed an extension of college. They hired a lot of new grads and every Friday had a beer bust with a keg that some employees stayed late into the evening to drain. On Halloween, a good chunk of the company showed up to work in costume. Many product teams coordinated into group costumes: convicts, or pirates, or, memorably, laundry, with their shirts clothespinned to a clothesline so they had to move together.
The Halloween beer bust took place in the empty lowest floor of the parking garage. The company rock band (yes, we had one) came dressed as KISS and played “The Monster Mash” for their opener—the electric guitar and drums echoing off the concrete pillars, floor, and ceiling.
I thought my costume was clever. I (of course) designed the costume around a hat. I found a vintage black hat at a thrift store. Its veil was in terrible condition, so I cut it off, bought some more opaque veiling, and pinned it to the hat. In my black dress, my face concealed, my fingers with their blood-red Lee Press-on Nails gripping a shining knife, I thought I looked like the mysterious woman in a black-and-white movie, the one who would be big trouble for the hero.
Leaving the unappreciative coworker, I moved to another group. “I’m Madame X,” I proclaimed in a dramatic, throaty voice.
“Is that a real knife?”
I sighed. “It’s from TARGET!”
Nowadays I wouldn’t think of casually carrying a chef’s knife around a work function, but back then I took it for granted that a) no one could seriously believe I was a threat, and b) no one could seriously believe such an obviously cheap knife was a danger. The plastic handle felt hollow and the blade was so flimsy it would flex if I attempted to cut brie.
Still, given the strange looks people gave me, I realized they didn’t see the Target knife the way I did. I placed it carefully at the base of concrete pillar far away from the party and went back for a Diet Coke and a handful of pretzels, no longer feeling like the mysterious Madame X. Now I was just a woman dressed in black, like an extra in a funeral scene.
Lesson learned: buy the plastic prop knife, even though it looks stupid and probably costs more that a Target knife.
I’ve had this hat for a very long time, and like the first hat, I bought it intending to use it as a costume. However, besides wearing it for Madame X, I’ve worn it (sans veil) a few non-Halloween times. I wore it once to a JewelTones singing gig when I couldn’t find my usual hat after a move. And I’ve worn it a few times with a black dress, pinning a spray of artificial flowers or a sparkling broach on it. When I took it out to wear for the blog, I noticed for the first time how discolored it has become, the black satin fading to reddish purple in many places.
It may not be the best example of vintage millinery, but like the Target knife, it’s real.
A note on the outfit. I had originally intended to wear this hat with a black dress, in true Madame X fashion, but the weather intervened, and I ended up wearing it with this blue vintage-inspired dress. Once again looking less mysterious than I'd hoped.
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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.