“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.
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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.
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A few years ago, I moved from the Bay Area. It was a hard move for me; I’d lived my whole life in the East Bay and the Peninsula. I had family there, lifelong friends. My husband and I moved to a town where we knew no one beyond our real estate agent. We endured some struggles getting through escrow (what do you mean, the showers only have lukewarm water? How could you repair the garage wall in such a way that the garage door won’t close?). After moving in, the first time it rained, our new roof leaked, and whenever we ran our microwave, a fuse blew.
All of these problems had easy fixes, but dealing with them made me feel even more uncertain that we had made the right change.
Within a week of my move, still up to our eyebrows in boxes, we showed up at the first rehearsal of a local community chorus. Unlike my last chorus, this one did not require an audition, just a voice check. I wasn’t nervous (or not very) when the director took me through scales to find out my range.
But one element was the same in both choruses: the friendliness of the group. The singers in this chorus were so uniformly welcoming that for the first time since the move, I felt like I had found my place, my people.
Recently, another alto, Lee, came up to me at rehearsal with a grocery bag. It contained a red hat that was too small for her. Would I be interested in it? Of course I would!
The hat worked well for winter trips to the farmer’s market, when my usual straw sun hat wouldn’t be warm enough or suited to potentially damp weather. So here I am, wearing the red floppy hat on a drizzly farmer’s market day.
I bought this gray beaded hat at an art fair many years ago. It was made by Jax Hatz San Francisco. Because it covered my ears and wouldn't blow off, I wore this hat a lot while driving my convertible. I also wore it after top-down driving, especially if I had worn a ball cap—this hat hid hat hair nicely.
As the hat has seemed to loosen up over the years, I have worn it less often. I also find myself driving top-down less than I used to. Maybe that’s the loosening up in me, a laziness that doesn’t want to take down and put up the manual top, a skittishness about getting a headache from too much sun.
In this picture, I’m posing before the Carrizo Plains wildflowers—we didn’t travel top down because the rutted dirt roads would challenge my low slung car (and the dust would coat the interior). I put the hat on for the shots, and then was glad of its warmth when the wind came up as the day went on. I remembered why I had always loved this hat: it’s comfortable, neutral yet slightly blingy, and cozy around the ears.
Here are some old pictures of my travels in this hat: In Monterey in 2001 and driving the coast in 2011:
In January of 2006, I was reading the local weekly paper when an ad caught my eye. The Peninsula Women’s Chorus was holding auditions. The ad mentioned that they still had spaces available for their upcoming tour to Hungary.
I had been thinking about going back to singing after a ten-year hiatus. And I’d never been overseas. So I decided to audition.
I was pretty nervous (and rusty). I hunted around till I found the music for a spiritual I’d prepared with my voice teacher back when I last had taken lessons and then practiced furiously until the audition.
Because I missed the official audition day, the director asked me to audition after a rehearsal. “Come a little early,” he said, “and you can get a feel for the group.”
So, there I was, about 9:30 at night, hoping to slip unobtrusively into the rehearsal. Since the door opened at the front of the room, though, all 50 women watched me enter. Some friendly second sopranos motioned me over, and I ended up looking on as the chorus sang “EI grito” (The Scream) from Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaar’s Suite de Lorca. I’m linking to another group’s recording, but as you can guess from the title, the first sound is a musical rendering of a scream.
I’m sunk, I thought. This is the best sight-reading chorus I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know many of them had sung the piece before, and thought they were singing it cold.
Under those conditions, I was doubly nervous to audition, and doubly surprised when I passed.
I didn’t end up singing in their section, but I’ve always remembered the kindness of those second sopranos. I remember Robin, because she shared her stand with me, but as Bonnie usually sat next to her I was likely between the two.
After I'd sung with PWC a few years, a group of women from the chorus asked me if I wanted to join another, smaller group they were in, the JewelTones. Bonnie, one of the second sopranos, was the costumer for that group, which wore 20’s, 40’s and 50’s outfits. A major fringe benefit of singing with the JewelTones was that Bonnie, who loved to haunt thrift stores, would pick up non-costume items that she thought the other singers would like. She gave me some great shoes (flowered platforms, leopard print rain boots, rhinestone Cinderella shoes), and hats. Several hats. These hats were not for costumes, but for me to wear for fun.
Today’s post features two of them: the green and purple knit hat and the collapsible purple hat (it cleverly stores completely flat). The green hat has been in the winter hat rotation, and I’ve worn the purple hat to church, the park, and, sentimentally, to rehearsal with the chorus I have sung with since I moved away from the Bay Area and PWC.
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.
I have so many hat boxes, most with multiple hats in them, that when I want a hat, I have to go looking for it. In searching for the green feathered hat, I opened a box to find one lone black hat resting inside.
Usually, when I come upon a hat, I think “Oh, right, that one.” But I had no memory of this hat. Not of buying it, or being given it, or wearing it. The box was from the 90’s, so the hat might date from that decade too.
Looking more closely, I sort of recognized the ribbon around the brim. Really, it’s a nice bow. A quality hat—made by the Bollman Hat Company, the oldest hatmaker in the US. Since it’s black on black, though, no burst of color makes it memorable.
Also, the hat seems vaguely Western—as if it could be worn by a saloon gambler. A few years ago, I moved from an urban area to a semi-rural town where you might see a woman in the Rite-Aid wearing a cowboy hat, boots, and turquoise jewelry. Though the town attracts wine tourists, it also has a cow-town vibe, in its livestock at the mid-state fair, it’s annual tractor parade, and its plethora of “Eat beef. The West wasn’t won on salad” bumper stickers. I haven’t eaten beef in over 20 years. I can’t pretend to be anything but a city slicker, and shouldn't even try.
Cow mural downtown.
So: A Western-style black hat with a black ribbon? What was I thinking?
Here’s what I speculate happened. One day, on a department store clearance table, I came upon this hat. Though it didn’t call to me, it was probably a bargain. And looking at its basic black color scheme, I probably thought, “This hat will be so practical! I can wear it with anything!” and bought it.
Well, from my previous post, you know that I eventually learned to steer clear of the merely practical. If an article of clothing doesn’t appeal to my sense of fun and style, it sits in the drawer or box, unworn. Forgotten.
So I took this hat out, brushed it with my lint brush, and wore it. I didn’t feel like I was wearing anything unusual, or magical. It wasn’t the ruby slippers. It was just a hat that didn’t seem “me.” When I wore it to church, someone said, "I love your hats! Especially the one you wore last week, with the feathers." I wasn't alone in finding this hat forgettable.
Here's my city-slicker outfit, including a leopard-print skirt and boots from Macy’s, not the local Boot Barn.
When I started this project, I told myself that I would donate any hat that I didn’t want after wearing it. This is the first contender I’ve found. Of course, my track record at letting go of hats is pretty dismal, so we’ll see.
By the way, if any of my friends reading this blog remember me wearing this hat (or remember passing it along to me), let me know!
In Part 1, I wrote about the first two of my Parkhurst wool hats. I bought a cranberry red one on a day trip, and a gray one on vacation in Mendocino.
I bought this blue cloche in the same Mendocino store. (BTW, in researching this blog, I noticed that Parkhurst’s web site still sells this hat, though not in this color).
It was like a ritual. Go someplace fun, buy a hat there. As I wrote in my first post, hats, for me, have a certain magic, as if they are not part of ordinary life. So, when I’m on vacation, I’m already out of ordinary life. A hat seems as natural as ruby slippers in Oz.
Most of my hats came from thrift stores, antique stores, and art fairs, so they are often old or unique. One of the reasons I’ve been so bad at wearing all my hats is that I’ve lacked the confidence—you have to have confidence to wear an old-fashioned hat when few people you know wear ANY kind of hat, not to mention one that has green and yellow feathers. Because I bought these wool hats new, in hat stores, I have never had any qualms about wearing them. Though not common (at least in coastal California) they aren’t outlandish. And they are especially easy to wear while vacationing, as I am in this picture from Mendocino in 2006.
I enjoyed wearing my wool hats; I didn’t feel like I needed any more.
Then, one day, I was doing a reading in an art gallery in a small wine country town near Sebastopol. I often arrive early to events and then must kill time to avoid appearing gauche and overeager. I ducked into a boutique. And there, I found one more Parkhurst hat I couldn’t resist—similar in shape to the blue one, but more elaborate, and in a lilac color I associated with spring, not winter.
And now when I wear that lilac wool hat, I remember that day, the beautiful weather, the fun reading, the little town tucked in the rolling hills, the out-of-the-way wineries we visited the next day. And I also remember wearing this hat walking in the snow at my parents' house, and dancing outdoors in the city park on New Year’s Eve, and going through a Victorian Christmas lights display. I didn’t need it, but I’m glad I bought it.
That’s the thing about my hats. They carry their own sense of occasion, accumulating meaning to me as I wear them. And they're fun. They're the technicolor bit of Oz you can bring home from vacation to your black-and-white daily life.
After wearing some easy wool hats, I decided to tackle wearing a hat I’d never worn before—this green feathered hat.
I bought it years ago in a consignment store. At the time, I had a vision of finding the perfect vintage dress to go with it, and perhaps wearing it on Halloween, as I did my first hat. I put the hat in the box and went hunting through vintage clothing stores. I never found a dress that I thought would match the hat, which was probably a good thing, because in my mind, this hat was wild, bright lime green and neon yellow. So I was surprised, years later, when I looked at the hat again and found it (especially the velvet bow in the front) more olive than lime. I’d had an olive jacket in my closet the whole time.
I not only lacked a matching dress, I also lacked the courage to wear this hat. For a long time, I only wore the hats I bought new, because I was afraid I would look ridiculous in the vintage hats. Even when I started wearing a few of my vintage hats, they tended to be small black or brown ones.
It took courage for me to walk into church wearing parrot plumage on my head. And one person did (with a smile) call me Birdie. But many people also told me how much they enjoyed my hats—and this hat in particular. It made me realize that the vintage hat did make me look ridiculous, but only because it took me a ridiculously long time to wear it.
Front and back views
Since some of my hats are going to be hard to find an outfit (or an occasion) for, after the first hat I'm tackling some of the easiest: my wool hats.
Also, I need to wear them before winter is over.
I have four wool hats that I think are from the same maker, Parkhurst. I can't be sure, because the first one I bought is reversible, and so has no tag on it. I’ve had it so long, its origin is lost in the mists of time, but I think I might have bought it on a trip to Jack London Square, in Oakland. (Among the many things to like about Oakland is that they have a waterfront square named after a writer!) This hat is also one of my most well-traveled. It’s been to the Argentinian Andes, among other places.
I’ve owned a few pieces of reversible clothing over the years, and I always go through the same process. Seeing the item, I say: “How wonderful! It will be so practical--two in one!” Yet, when it comes to wearing it, I like one side so much better that I never wear the reverse. Such is the case with this hat—I only remember wearing the more cloche-shaped reverse side once. In fact, even when I took pictures with the reverse side, I didn't like it, so I'm not posting a picture.
Practicality can never make me like something better. I'll settle for it, but the merely practical doesn't catch my imagination. For example, my first car was a four-door sedan. Easy to drive people around in. Plenty of trunk space (I had such a small apartment I habitually stored my champagne glasses in the car's trunk). I was happy with it, but it never caught my imagination. When I got a Miata, though, I fell in love. Not at all practical, but so fun.
This gray wool hat with the velvet band I bought on vacation in Mendocino. I found this hat in the local hat store, hemmed and hawed because it was on the expensive side for me at the time, but eventually bought it. It was worth it, because it goes with everything—even a wild coat! It's not reversible, it's versatile.
Versatile is not the same as practical. Few of my hats are practical (even these wool ones, since I don't live in a cold climate). They are mostly for fun. I can wear this gray hat, for fun, under many circumstances. Forget being practical. Life is short. Enjoy the hat.
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.