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.
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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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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“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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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?
Someone who knows more than I do about hats might be able to tell you the official name of this shape. I call this the mini top hat. I chose this hat from the collection of hats offered to me by my friend Sheila at the same time as she gave me the birthday cake hat.
I wanted this hat solely because of the shape. It’s hard to tell from the pictures, but it’s asymmetrical—the side with the bow on it is longer than the opposite side. To me, it’s like a cartoon version of a top hat—scrawny, but expressing its outsized, jaunty personality. If this hat could talk, it’d make wisecracks.
Maybe I like this hat because that’s sometimes how I see myself: a short person spouting jokes.
I was almost done with my Christmas shopping. I wasn’t in a hurry, just poking around in some local stores, hoping for an inspiration for the last couple of gifts. I went into an antique/vintage store that had recently moved into a downtown location and saw this little black hat with pearls on it.
Just my kind of hat. I tried it on. Cute! But its price tag was missing and the woman working in the store didn’t know how much it was supposed to cost. So, regretfully, I went on my way.
For many years I had had a hat moratorium. No more hats, I told myself. I already had so many that I never wore. However, since moving to this new town and starting to occasionally wear my hats to church, I thought I might make room for a cute, small hat such as this one.
A week later, Christmas shopping done, I returned to the store. The owner was there and had priced the hat. I thought about dropping a hint to my husband as a gift idea, but instead I decided to just buy the hat myself. It wasn’t expensive.
This little black hat is the last hat I bought before starting the blog. I wore it to church once soon after buying it, so this outing marked the second time I’d worn it.
As always, a big thanks to my husband for being my photographer. For this picture, we’d taken a few shots outside church, and when we got home, I wanted a few more to choose from. As I was refreshing my lipstick, he took this picture.
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“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.
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.