When I was in my 20’s, three women friends and I started taking each other out to celebrate our birthdays. We all worked together as technical writers at the same software company, and even when we went our separate ways professionally, we continued meeting.
One member was married, but the other three of us were single, and when we’d have dinner, we’d talk about the men we were dating. “Tell me if you think this is weird,” one of us would begin, and then describe what the latest guy was doing: brandishing a gun during a road rage incident, spending every weekend rock climbing instead of with his girlfriend, dismissing complaints that his cat made off with jewelry left on a nightstand. And the rest of us would confirm that yes, that was weird, or that yes, perhaps a person who behaved that way might not be the best partner for the long haul. It struck me even then how hesitant we were, as young women, to trust our own judgement. Women friends reassured us that our expectations weren't crazy.
Then, all within the same year, the remaining three of us got married (not to those oddly behaving men). We talked more about our jobs, about buying houses. About pets and growing kids. Two members started their own businesses. Two members went back to college for master’s degrees. And still we met four times a year to celebrate our friendship.
As the kids were moving on to college, our talk turned to the parents we were caring for as they aged or losing to their final illnesses. We also talked about our hobbies—concerts we performed in, books we read, vacations we took. At one point I mentioned that I had a huge hat collection, but seldom wore any of them anymore. “Wear one next time we get together,” they said. So I started wearing hats to some of our dinners.
First, I wore the Madame X Hat, though without a veil and embellished with a spray of silk flowers, my friends (all witnesses to that costume) probably didn’t realize it was the same hat.
Around this time, my writer friend Sheila offered me some hats that used to be her neighbor’s. At that point, I was trying to limit my hat collecting, so I only chose three, including the Gray Mini Top Hat and this cute brown hat. Like the gray hat, I chose this one for the shape—I don’t own another with this squared-off front.
The next time the four of us got together, I wore this brown hat. Because I’d never worn it before, when I wear it, it reminds me of my firends.
Three years ago, I left the Bay Area, where I’d lived my whole life, and moved three hours away. I can no longer attend many of our birthday gatherings, though I’ve made it to a couple. At first the move was very hard for me. I remember crying one day because I missed my friends so much. Seeing how sad I was, my husband offered to drive with me for the next birthday meal. We drove up in the morning, and he dropped me off so that I could have a nice long lunch catching up with them. Then, after lunch, we made the three hour drive back.
As I’ve settled into my new home, I make it to the Bay Area less often. I’m busier now with all my activities and the friends I’ve made since I moved. Still, there’s no one here who’s known me thirty years. No one who remembers helping each other through dating heartbreaks, going on trips together, dancing at each other’s weddings, consoling each other after a parent’s death. Hopefully I can make it to another gathering in the future, and we can once again talk as only old friends can.
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It didn’t start out this way. I saw this cute hat at an art fair. I really loved the fabric—even though it was a basic bucket shape, I thought the fabric made it look more sophisticated. (Though it’s reversible to a beige fabric, as with my other reversible hat, I only wear my favorite side). I used to wear this hat at a jaunty angle with a pair of dangly earrings.
But then, one day I was having a bad hair day. Maybe I didn’t blow dry it right or I bedheaded it taking a nap. And I thought, “I’ll hide it with a hat.”
This hat, because it covers so much of my hair, seemed perfect.
And it was.
It’s like one of those sad movies, where the aspiring artist can’t sell her serious work but discovers a knack for advertising art. Or the musician is born to play classical music, but the crowd loves show tunes. This hat was meant for so much more, but it’s such a great bad hair day hat that I forget to wear it otherwise.
“Nice hat!” someone will say.
“Bad hair day,” I sometimes reply. But other times I just smile and say, “Thanks!”
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When I was a kid, I noticed three boxes on the shelf in my grandmother’s closet. They had clear plastic windows in the fronts, but I couldn’t see inside. I asked my grandma what was inside them. “Hats,” she told me. By then, hats had gone out of style, and I never saw her wear them.
My grandmother’s house was a trove of wonders for me, with its old-fashioned toys (who knew Borden made a board game starring cows Elsie and Elmer (of glue fame)?), its linoleum rug, antique wood-burning cookstove, claw-foot bathtub, and early-20th-century novels in fraying cloth bindings. Hats were the least of it. In fact, I never actually saw them, just their shadows inside those high shelf boxes.
Though she had a propane heater and an electric range, on cold mornings Grandma would kindle a fire in the antique kitchen stove against the damp Washington chill. Sundays she walked to the church on the corner. We kids would set up the croquet set on her mossy lawn and she’d play with us. She grew hollyhocks next to her back porch. She skipped rocks. A river ran through town, spanned by a wooden train trestle, and she’d walk with us down to the river, where the trestle’s creosote smell blended with the smell of damp sand and snake grass. In fact, though I have other pictures where she’s dressed more formally, this picture of her at the river is my favorite. Maybe you can tell from the photo that she had a sparkle in her eyes, signaling her stealth sense of humor.
I miss her. Her birthday fell in September, and I always especially remember her this time of year.
After Grandma died, my mother gave me Grandma’s hats. “We thought these should go to you,” she said, handing me the three boxes that I’d forgotten until I saw them again, their hats still hidden in the shadows. I’m not sure what I expected—Grandma wasn’t rich and didn’t go in for extravagant display. When I finally saw them, the hats themselves were relatively plain. Wardrobe basics that she could wear with a lot of different outfits.
I put them away. They went from her closet shelf to mine.
When I started this project, I knew I would finally wear those three hats. But I kept hesitating. What did I want to say about her? How could I convey the person she was?
Then I got the pie dress. I saw this dress online and, feeling as I do about pie (HUGE fan), I bought it. Grandma was famous for her pies. We looked forward to them every time we came to visit—wild blackberry and, especially, apple pies made from the yellow transparent apples she grew—soft, early ripening apples that cooked down into wonderful applesauce and pies.
So it felt right, in this, her birth month, in the pie dress, to finally wear one of her hats and write about her. And, if I didn’t say everything I want to say about her, well, I have two more hats to go.
Here’s a close-up of the hat. It’s white faux fur, its veil slightly misshapen from its years in the hatbox. My guess it it’s been 50 years since anyone wore this hat. I was proud to wear it, in honor of Grandma.
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I always thought of this light blue hat as one of a set of three. First I bought the navy and white hat, then the white on white hat, then this one. All of them date from the late 80s. This light blue hat was the last one I bought and the first one I stopped wearing.
Why? For one thing, it’s a little small. It fits, but it’s tight.
Also, at some point I looked at it and thought, “That looks like an old lady hat.” Something about that row of blue sequins made me think of white-haired women in powder blue suits. I was in my early twenties and I didn’t want that look.
But maybe I stopped wearing it because of the time I wore it to a wedding. Two friends of mine had a beautiful October wedding, on a golden fall day warm enough for a short-sleeved dress, but not hot. After the wedding, I was standing in the church parking lot with my boyfriend of a year or two, talking to the groom. Because the bride was pregnant, they’d moved up the timetable. “I’m not marrying her because she’s pregnant,” the groom said. “I’m marrying her because I love her.” He looked so serious and so happy.
Then he grinned and lifted his eyebrows. “So how about…?” and he pointed at my boyfriend and me.
I was afraid to look at my boyfriend. I was thinking “I’m too young to get married.” It was a gut reaction, the kind that shows you exactly where you stand, even if you haven’t articulated it to yourself. In that moment, I knew I wasn’t ready to settle down with him. My boyfriend, though, was a few years older, and I worried that if I looked at him, I’d see that HE was considering marriage.
I don’t remember what either of us said. For all I know, my boyfriend was facing the knowledge that he didn’t want to marry either. Maybe he was afraid to look at me because he worried I’d be looking starry-eyed and hopeful.
Eventually, that boyfriend and I did break up.
And sometime after that October day I put this hat away.
Now, so many years later, I am getting to be an old lady. I'd happily wear a powder blue suit. When I took this hat out of the hatbox, I felt a little melancholy. The hat made me remember that day when I was so young. Then, while we were taking pictures, my husband cracked a joke and snapped the picture as I laughed. And so I end this post with joy.
One evening at a Peninsula Women’s Chorus rehearsal, my friend Bea came up to me. “I saw a couple of hats at a garage sale this weekend. Since it was at the end of the day, they gave them to me for free. I thought maybe the JewelTones could use them.” And she handed me a bag.
A bag like this is Christmas for me. I peeped inside. I immediately knew one hat would never work for the JewelTones, whose 1940s costumes have an overall color scheme of black, white, gray, and red. That hat had a green veil. It was also, as you’ll see eventually, a bit odd. But the other hat was a JewelTones possibility, since it was white. It had a cute shape akin to a backwards S. However, it struck me as more of a 50s hat than a 40s hat. I decided to keep the green veil hat and ask the JewelTones about the white hat.
At the next JewelTones rehearsal, I mentioned that Bea had given us a white hat. Could we use it? To my delight, no one piped up that they needed a new costume hat.
Like the Birthday Cake hat, when these hats didn’t work for the JewelTones they entered my collection. Hats, as you’ve guessed, are a kind of obsession with me. I’m not quite trustworthy around them.
In addition to its cute curlicue shape, the workmanship on this hat is intricate, as you can see from the closeup. It was made by Clover Lane, a pretty prolific maker of hats back in the day, if Etsy is any guide.
I’ve never worn this hat before, though I’ve been meaning to for a while. I thought it would look cute with the blue retro dress I wore with the Madame X hat, but when I tried it, it just didn't go with the dress. So, a black hat with that dress, and a different outfit for this one.
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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.