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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Sometimes I think of this hat as the midsummer party hat. Though I bought this hat a long time ago, I didn’t wear it for the first time until five years ago, when my friend Sheila gave a midsummer party. I’d just bought a new dress that I wanted to wear to the party, and knowing that Sheila is lover of hats, I thought I’d pull out a hat to wear. At that time, I didn’t feel confident about wearing my vintage hats many places, but Sheila’s house was a definite hat safe zone.
I thought this green ring hat went great with the dress.
Packing for a trip to visit my in-laws, I had planned to bring a white hat for this outfit. However, I got to thinking about the green hat and took it out. Another great match! (Though you can't see it in these pictures, I'm wearing a light green skirt.)
Whenever I visit my in-laws, I always stop by the local antique store. Located in a former department store, this three-story shop has many stalls operated by various antique dealers. I always find something I want to buy. In fact, the green rhinestones I am wearing in the five-year-old picture came from this store. Besides jewelry, I’ve also found an embellished red coat, an old Royal manual typewriter, and a Venetian mirror there. And this trip? I bought a hat, of course!
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I have had this hat for many, many years. It was the first non-ring hat I owned, which means it was the third or fourth hat I bought, perhaps while I was in college, or even high school. It’s a cute hat; I’ve always liked it.
So why haven’t I worn it before?
It’s uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. The little tabs that hold it on are so tight, it’s like a rose-embellished vise gripping my temples.
Many a year I took it out at Easter, thinking it would be just the seasonal addition to a spring dress. After trying it on, though, I’d find myself reaching for the White on White Hat yet again.
Because I said I’d wear every hat, I chose a day when I knew I had no church responsibilities, minimizing wear time.
I’ve been compiling a mental list of hats I probably won’t hold onto after the Hat Project is over. The Forgotten Hat is on that list, and I had put this hat on that list as well.
But a funny thing happened: either the hat loosened up as I wore it or I got used to it. I wouldn’t call it a comfortable hat, but the sensation of walking around with a pink C-clamp on my head diminished.
When I was younger, I had a greater tolerance for uncomfortable clothes. I’d wear high heels to work and walk around all day with my toes scrunched and calves aching. I’d wear heavy hoop earrings that left my lobes red and throbbing. I thought it was the price of being grown up. For many years in my first job out of college, I was the youngest person in my department. One way I tried to compensate was by dressing professionally: skirts, stockings, and heels, even as many around me wore jeans. I tried to telegraph that I was young but serious.
So it seems odd that I never endured the headache to wear this hat when I routinely endured painful outfits. Nowadays, I certainly no longer need to compensate for my youth in the way I dress. If an item of clothing is cute enough, I’ll put up with some discomfort. I’ll wear the heavy clip earrings, the platform heels, the tight hat. But only for an hour or two. Then its back to my more comfortable clothes.
The jury is still out on whether I'll keep this hat. But if I do pass it along, I hope it goes to a young (or not so young) person who will wear it, despite the discomfort.
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Of course it wasn't really a drug deal. That's just what it felt like. I was standing in front of an open car trunk while Linda, a friend from my church, showed me the goods. She'd packed up some excess hats and scarves into two Hefty bags. It felt like a scene from a movie, where characters pick up contraband--weapons or drugs--from car trunks. Of course, those scenes usually don't take place in broad daylight in a church parking lot.
The treasure trove of accessories made my heart race, but I was trying to be good. Moderate my hat addiction.
This hat, the biggest, showiest one, immediately caught my eye. I have a particular fondness for small vintage hats, but every once in a while I go for a bigger statement.
"Are you sure you want to part with it?" I asked, picking it up.
"I'm sure," she said. She'd asked if I would be interested in adding to my collection, because she was trimming down hers. In fact, she mentioned that some of the hats had been passed on to her by another church member, and since she was short on storage room, she'd like to pass them along to someone who could appreciate them.
I looked into the Hefty bag. Most of the hats were cloth hats similar to ones I already owned. However, I did take one more, an orangish brown velvet cap accentuated with buttons. It was an unassuming hat, but in a color different from any I had. I thought it might go with an orange paisley vintage coat I have.
"That one? Are you sure?" Linda asked.
"I'm sure," I said.
"No others? No scarves?" She sounded disappointed that I hadn't taken more off her hands. In fact, I have so many scarves already that I tried not to look to closely at what she had, in case I was tempted. Until recently, I lived in a cooler climate where scarves were much more useful. Without cool evenings or much of a winter to speak of, I find myself thinking wistfully of the scarves and jackets I seldom get to wear. Still, I felt like I exercised heroic restraint.
At home, I put this hat on a shelf (I have no hatbox room for a hat this large). I tried the other hat on, and I immediately understood Linda's doubtful tone when I'd chosen it. The color looked terrible on me. No wonder I didn't have any other hats that hue! It didn't even match the coat I thought it might. So I did something I rarely do: I donated it. Yes, I actually let a hat leave my possession. Making it easier was the fact that it wasn't a vintage or handmade hat. Hopefully, another woman with a different skin tone found the hat and fell in love with it.
Donating that hat made me feel like less of a hat addict. I can quit anytime!
I'm grateful to Linda for passing this hat along to me. When I wore it to church, she happened to sit down next to me. "Nice hat," she said.
"Thanks, it's one you gave me," I answered.
She looked pleased. She'd given me the gift of the hat, and I felt like I'd given her a little gift by wearing it and enjoying it.
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When I decided to pack a hat to wear to tea in England, I knew just the hat: this white ring hat.
I’m calling it the bonus ring hat because it came in a group of three hats I bought off shopgoodwill.com. I was excited to get the lot’s two yellow hats, since my collection didn’t include any. The white ring hat was just a bonus; because I already had one, I wouldn’t have ordered this hat on its own.
When the three hats came, the two yellow ones were in almost mint condition. The white one, though, had a couple of issues. First, its net was starting to separate at the back. But most obviously, it was a somewhat crushed, probably from being crammed in a box for years. Its soft body had curled under and its net stuck out funny.
I put it on a foam head and pinned it into shape, hoping to revive it. After this treatment, it appeared better, but still a little misshapen.
So, when I thought about packing a hat, this one seemed perfect: small, light, and pre-crushed. Being shut up in a suitcase couldn’t do anything to this hat that it hadn’t suffered before.
I slipped it in a bag to protect the netting, set it on top of my mound of folded clothes, forced the lid down, and zipped my suitcase.
I planned to wear the hat to tea in Bath if I didn’t buy a hat in England. Bath was about halfway through the trip, and the hat was still looking pretty good. However, since I bought the fascinator in Bath, this poor ring hat not only got passed over, but became even more crushed when I added the box containing the fascinator to my luggage.
On the last night of the trip, having been to France and back, my group had a celebratory final dinner in Winchester. I decided to wear the hat and the finery I bought on the trip: the lace scarf from a street kiosk in Bath and the vintage necklace from Stardust Years, a very cool vintage store down an alley in Winchester. The hat looked a little crushed, but by then, after a ten-day trip through London, Bath, Stonhenge, Salisbury, Portsmouth, Mont Saint Michel, Bayeux, Caen, and two overnight ferry trips across the English Channel, I was feeling a little worse for wear myself.
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"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.