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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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.
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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When I started this blog, my goal was to wear every hat I had—the ones I hadn’t worn for years, and, especially, the ones I had never worn. Because the point was to enjoy what I had, I wasn’t planning to buy any new hats.
Well, that was the plan.
But it’s like when I worked in an ice cream shop: though I’m not a huge ice cream fan, being around it every day made me crave a hot fudge sundae. In the same way, wearing all these hats made me want to get some new ones.
I took to browsing shopgoodwill.com, Goodwill’s online auction site. Just looking, I told myself. And then, one day, I saw a lot of three ring hats: two yellow and one off-white. I had always wanted a yellow hat, and here were two! Plus, I have a weakness for ring hats. I decided to bid.
I was the only bidder. And even though the shipping was almost as much as the three hats, I felt I was still getting a good deal. And after these hats, I wasn’t buying any more, I told myself.
Well, that was the plan. But more about that in a future post.
When the three hats arrived, they were in good condition, except for the slightly misshapen ring on the off-white one. I finally had my yellow hat(s)!
Unfortunately, it was February, and a February of an especially cool spring. I had to wait until the weather warmed to justify such a springlike hat (and outfit).
So, here in June, I finally wore one of the yellow ring hats.
You can see from the way the veil fits that this hat is meant to be worn straight on the head. However, when I tried it that way, because of the bow on the top, I looked like I was wearing a propeller beanie. So I shifted it to the side.
By the way, reading through the yellow veil was especially hard. I had to flip it up in church every time a hymn came along. How did women in the 1950s and 1960s do it?
“What hat are you wearing for Easter?” one of the women at church asked me.
“Oh, I don’t know. Something small, so I don’t block the other singers,” I answered.
She looked disappointed. The people at church have been very supportive of all my hats—I end up wearing so many of them there. One Sunday when I was ushering (and felt I should look professional) I didn’t wear one. “No hat?” or “Where’s your hat?” people said.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I don’t have any really large, over-the-top hats. Nothing that would classify as an Easter bonnet in the movie Easter Parade (which is FILLED with great hats).
But I did have a vintage flower-bedecked number that was given to me by my friend, writer Sheila Scobba Banning. When an elderly friend of hers gave Sheila her collection, Sheila chose some hats, then offered me any of the others. Mindful of how many hats I already had, I restricted myself to three smallish ones: one black, one brown, and one blue-gray, which I’ll blog about eventually. However, Sheila also showed up with this hat, which she called “the birthday cake hat.” It does look like one, with its swath of pink netting and large flower in the center of the crown.
She said my singing group, the JewelTones, might want to use it as part of a costume. I thought it would be great for that—except the Jewels had 40’s outfits, not 50’s, in red and black, not pink. But I always hoped they’d deck themselves out in poodle skirts, clamdiggers, and flowered tea-length dresses, and when they did, I’d proffer the perfect 50’s birthday cake hat.
They didn't get those 50's costumes. So when I moved out of the area, I took the birthday cake hat with me. (JewelTones, if you ever need it, it's yours!)
Mentally reviewing my collection for an appropriate Easter hat, I thought of this mound of pink netting and silk flowers. If not Easter, when? Forget the subdued ring hats!
Easter morning, I showed up to church in the birthday cake hat. A few short months ago, pre Hat Project, I would have hesitated to stand up in front of the church in a hat encircled with poofy pink netting and with a giant artificial flower on the top. Not now, though. I didn’t block any of the other singers (I hope) and I added just a hint of Easter Parade to the festivities.
After the first hat, the next two hats I bought were also simple rings with net. I have never worn them before.
These hats fulfilled my two primary hat requirements at the time:
This hat type is still pretty inexpensive and easy to find (in fact, I picked up a group of three recently for $20.00 at the online Goodwill), but they appeal to me beyond those qualifications. I love the tidiness of these hats—how with a fabric ring base, a net, and maybe some ribbon, they elevate an outfit.
As you will see, my hat collection is long on small hats and short on large picture hats, or over-the-top confections with giant bows and feathers. The day-to-day ladies’ hats of the 50's and 60's interest me more than the modern “Kentucky Derby” hats. Except perhaps in the South, those theatrical hats are designed for a special occasion (such as the Derby or a wedding). They are a shout that drowns out all else. I prefer hats that date from the days when no outfit was complete without a hat and gloves. They are harmony for the rest of the outfit.
These particular ring hats caught my eye because they had embellishments on the veils that interested me. The black hat has small black velvet flowers with green leaves.
The off-white hat has small fuzzy dots. I was also attracted by this hat’s bow in the back and pillbox shape. It’s like one of those false-front buildings you see in movie Westerns: from afar it looks like a pillbox, but if you see it from above you realize it’s a ring, not a full hat.
This week I wore another hat that I’ve never worn before, but this time more than timidity kept me from wearing it.
I bought this hat at an outdoor art fair on a warm summer day. I got the feeling that the young lady selling the hats hadn't been at it long. “Do you have a bag for it?” I asked. She looked puzzled, regretful, as if she’d never considered that someone might want a bag (note—this hat dates from the days when all retail establishments and art fair vendors gave out bags).
So I took the hat without a bag. My husband offered to go into a nearby store and see if he could buy one, but I said, “No, that’s OK.” Big mistake. As we walked through the art fair, my hands got sweaty. I held the hat gingerly at the back, but when we got home, I noticed that my sweaty palms had discolored the back of the hat. I was upset with myself for not just getting a bag from somewhere, anywhere, and upset at the hat seller for being so unprepared.
I wasn’t sure if the hat was made from a washable material—from the way it discolored as I held it, I doubted it. It might even be of acetate. Once I tried to wash an acetate dress and it turned into a stiff shriveled lump.
Honestly, I knew the stain wasn’t too bad. But it was noticeable, and it was a brand new hat, dammit!
So I put it in a box.
Looking for a different hat I thought I might wear, I opened the box and found this one in there too. I still liked it. And though I knew the hat was discolored, it was no more discolored than some of my vintage hats, to be honest. So I decided to wear it.
This hat initially attracted me because it reminded me of the hats worn by members of my favorite swing trio, Cats & Jammers (sadly, now defunct, though you can still buy their recordings). I decided to wear it to church on a Sunday I was singing with the choir in front of the congregation. That way, I would both honor the musical inspiration for buying the hat and, since no one would be sitting behind me, hide the discolored back. After the service someone said I was “rocking” the hat. I thought that was an appropriate term.
I can’t play guitar or bass fiddle, like the women in Cats & Jammers, so posing with my ukulele was as close as I could get.
Brightly lit picture showing the discoloration that I hope isn't too noticeable in dimmer lighting.
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.