The first hat I ever owned was a cowboy hat. I got it at Disneyland when I was five: a brown, flat-topped hat with a string chinstrap and a picture of Donald Duck on the front. In our camper on the trip home, I sat at the back window and waved at passing cars. Most of the people waved back. Maybe that was the start of it all. I discovered young that hats attracted attention.
However, that was the last cowboy hat I owned for many years. To be honest, cowboy hats aren’t ordinarily my style. I used to have one that I got for free at Western-themed company picnic in the late eighties. The only place I remember wearing that cowboy hat was on a trip to the Grand Canyon—it was at that time the only sun-shading hat I had.
As I bought sun hats more to my taste, I got rid of the freebie cowboy hat.
However, as I mentioned in The Beaded Satin Slumber Cap and The Beaded Double Crown, while I was helping my friend Ann clean out her house after her sister’s death, she said, “If you see something you like, take it.” I was working with another friend, Marnie, loading Hefty bags with clothes to donate to charity, when we came upon a suede and leather vest and skirt. I was smitten. I loved its seventies vibe. It seemed about my size, though the tagged size of the skirt was two sizes larger than I wear.
Seeing how much I liked it, Marnie said, “You should try it on.”
I couldn’t resist. I slipped the skirt on over my clothes and found it fit. The fact that the size numbers seem large by today’s standards is one indication of the outfit’s age. The sizing charts have changed over the years, with the measurements for sizes increasing, so that, for example, a vintage size eight is more like a modern size four.
Though obviously a set, the skirt and vest have different maker’s labels, both from Albuquerque—the skirt Pioneer Wear, the vest Sullivan.
When I asked Ann if I could take the set, she seemed genuinely pleased. It turned out that it was hers, not her sister’s, and that she hadn’t worn it for years. (That is borne out by the torn ticket to an Elks Lodge Dinner Dance from 1989 I found in the skirt pocket).
She asked me to take a picture of myself wearing it. “Oh, there will be pictures,” I said, already planning to blog about it.
The other friends helping that day said, “What a great Halloween costume that will make!”
I agreed, even though I hadn’t thought of it as a costume, just a cool outfit that would be fun to wear (no idea where). Like the gold lamé coat I bought recently, I just wanted it. I don’t really see vintage clothes as costume—or perhaps I see all clothes as costume.
Unfortunately (and somewhat unbelievably) I did not have a hat to go with the outfit. The closest might have been the Forgotten Hat, which I had given away to a friend a few months ago.
So I decided to buy a cowboy hat to go with the skirt and vest. Of course, I was too cheap to buy a new one at full price. I visited several antique and thrift stores before finding this one for eight dollars. It’s obviously not old—just a modern, made-in-China hat, but I liked the lacy look. It was lighter, softer, and cooler than my old cowboy hat. I wore it to a Halloween zoom chorus rehearsal. Like The First Hat, I bought this hat intending for it to be a costume. But that doesn’t mean it ONLY has to be a costume. It would be perfect for wearing to the fair, for example.
I also put the vest to use as a pirate costume for a Fabulous JewelTones video. Like the hat, someday I’ll wear the suede outfit just for fun—not as costume, but clothes.
As I mentioned in the Beaded Satin Slumber Cap, I was helping a friend (also named Ann) clean out some of her sister's possessions when she gave me a hatbox. Inside was this wonderful beaded and sequined double crown. Since it belonged to her sister, Ann has no idea of its history.
When I searched online for more information, I found a few of these small beaded crowns for sale. My guess is that this one was a wedding accessory, perhaps with a veil attached. Here's a picture I found online of a sixties bride wearing one a bit similar:
When I tried the crown on, it immediately became apparent that it was missing the elastic, comb, or hairband that had originally held it in place. Perhaps that was lost with the veil. I rigged something up for the photo, though it wasn't easy to find elastic, since everyone is making pandemic masks!
I think the crown is from the sixties, but I am not confident in that estimate. Similar crowns online are listed as being from the forties to the sixties. As I've mentioned before, hats are difficult to date--you often have to go by style alone.
Sometimes writing this blog involves detective work, or just plain curiosity. In this case, I started wondering about Gigi Hats in Richmond. Fortunately, the hatbox had the address.
After doing some googling, I found another Gigi hat for sale with a hatbox from a different era. The store has been out of business for years; however, its signs remain. The barber shop that occupies the location has retained the sign on the side of the building:
Notice that the font is the same and that blue seems to have been their signature color. They also had a large neon sign. It is now repainted white, but here's a picture from 2012, before it was repainted:
It's hard not to see this picture as a metaphor. Hats, once a necessary accessory, have now declined to a niche product. Shops devoted to nothing but hats are rare and usually small. However, I take some positives from these signs. First, though the shop is gone, the signs are not. Someone has seen fit to preserve them as a legacy of a beloved local business, the same as my friend's sister preserved the beaded crown. And second, as my Instagram feed proves, many people like me are still interested in vintage hats, caring for them and cherishing them as much as the ladies of the past did.
I recently helped a chorus friend (also named Ann) clean out her sister’s possessions after her passing. “If you see anything you want,” she said generously, “just take it.” As I was helping her empty one clothes closet, the other chorus members working in the house marched ceremoniously into the room, bearing a small hatbox. Knowing I love hats, they presented it to me.
The box was old. Whatever was inside had obviously held sentimental value to my friend’s sister. I opened it up and found, not a hat, but another special item of millinery (which I will be covering in a future post). After trying it on, I noticed the box contained something else, something blue satin folded in the bottom.
When I took it out, I discovered that the blue satin was the inside of another hat. The outside was white satin studded with beads. It intrigued me. Was it one of those fashionable turbans from the late sixties/early seventies, such as Elizabeth Taylor was famous for wearing?
However, when I tried it on and ran to a mirror, it looked more like a toque—in fact, it looked like a bejeweled chef’s hat.
So what was it?
I started a research game I called Turban or Toque, googling images of vintage hats (and discovering something called a "turban toque" which further confused me). I got out my hat reference book. Perhaps it was neither—maybe it was a tam? It wasn’t knit, and it was a little too floppy, but it did have the basic shape, the band, and a knot of beads on top in place of the pompom.
Flummoxed, I decided to call in the experts--The Fabulous JewelTones. On the weekly zoom call, I modeled the hat. “Turban, Toque, or Tam?” I asked. The costumer nixed tam. I got some votes for toque (“You look like the Pillsbury Doughboy!")
Finally, one of the jewels suggested it was a sleeping cap, such as ladies who got their hair done once or twice a week used to preserve their hairdos between salon visits. “My mother wore one of those,” one JewelTone said. “We used to call it her helmet.”
I had briefly considered that this cap was for sleeping but rejected the idea because it had beads on it. Wouldn’t it be uncomfortable to sleep with them sticking into your skull? However, I reminded myself that during this era women routinely slept on rollers, sometimes quite large and spiky ones. What were a few little beads to that, especially cushioned by a poofy sixties hairdo?
Googling satin sleeping caps, I found lots that looked very similar, though none were beaded. And this cap (as one vintage ad said) was clearly “Bouffant Size.”
When I wore this hat, I wadded up bubble wrap to mimic the bouffant that would have filled the cap. I imagined myself with an Amy Winehouse beehive hidden under there, ready to spring forth in the morning to conquer the world with Aqua Net-fueled, gravity-defying heights.
I was so pleased when my former singing group, the JewelTones, asked me to participate on a video they produced, a virtual project with the group singing the classic song "Route 66." Watch the video here. For other videos of the group performing, see their YouTube channel.
Recording the video was great fun, although I had to do a lot of takes. With the audio, hearing my voice isolated without other singers and without accompaniment was nerve-wracking. I had many moments of thinking "Why did I ever believe I could sing?" I also had many video outtakes, including the time I held my sign upside down and the time I came in on someone else's solo. Watching my performances, I kept thinking, "Why didn't I smile more?" and "My COVID hair is really long." But the end result was worth all the effort, put together by Deanne, a technical wizard from the group.
As I've mentioned in a previous post, opportunities to wear hats these days are rare. I've worn some hats to virtual church coffee hour, and I've worn the MVP hat and the Writer Gift Hat to the farmer's market and on neighborhood walks. But because I haven't been going many places, I haven't had the chance to wear any of the fancier hats. This video was a great project, not only for reconnecting with friends and singing, but for wearing my Forties JewelTones Hat. And hat lovers, be sure to check out the chapeaus of the other singers as well.
A few months into The Hat Project, I started thinking about what the last hat should be. I emphatically did not want to leave the worst till the last, ending with a whimper. Then I got an idea. Since I started with the first hat I ever bought, I would end with the last hat I bought.
I decided around the time I bought the Blue and Purple Hat with the Blue Feather. Maybe that would be it. Not long after, I bought The Hat that Got Away (Twice!). OK, I thought. That’s the one—the last hat. I figured if I didn’t buy any more, I’d be happy with that choice. It’s a great hat—probably one of the standout vintage hats I own.
And that was it for a while.
Then, when I was visiting my in-laws in August, I saw this hat at a local antique store. And (always a consideration for me) it was on sale. I didn’t have anything like it in my collection. As you may have noticed, I love small black hats. But this hat’s wild mix of colors and prints was unique for me. Still, it had a few minor condition issues and was a little tight.
I hemmed and hawed.
My husband, who was with me, encouraged me. “You’ll never regret buying that hat,” he said.
And he was right.
In fact, I’ve never regretted buying any of the hats I own. Some of them are uncomfortable. Some of them are no longer to my taste. But I enjoyed wearing them nonetheless.
And so, we come to the last of the hats I set out to wear for The Hat Project. I have worn and documented the sixty-some hats I own, telling some tales of my life along the way. My husband deserves a huge round of applause for taking over 5000 photos, from which I drew the ones featured in the blog. I’m grateful to every one of you who read these blog posts and shared the journey with me.
This won’t be the last post, though; it's just the end of the weekly posts featuring a new hat. I have a couple of additional posts in mind already, though don't expect them weekly. In the future, when we can have parties again, I DO want to have the hat party I wrote about. And, of course, a collector never really stops collecting. Though this hat is the last hat for now, I’m sure I’ll buy more hats down the road. Only something very special, I tell myself. Of course hats, like children or flowers, are all special.
Also, I’ve been very tempted to bid for some large lots of vintage hats at the online Goodwill. You can’t really see the hats or their condition, so it’s a gamble, but I would enjoy discovering what mysteries one of those lots hold. Life is, after all, an adventure. Why not wear a stylish hat while you journey?
I bought this hat more than a year ago, in an auction lot of three hats from the online Goodwill. That lot contained two other ring hats: the First Yellow Ring Hat and one I called the White Bonus Ring Hat because I really bought the lot because of the yellow hats--the white one was extra.
Last spring was unusually cool, so I didn't get a chance to wear the other yellow ring hat until summer. This spring, however, after a rainy March turned quite warm. I could have worn this hat any time. As luck would have it, the day that I took the pictures it was actually raining a bit--very unusual here for May.
Because this hat has a somewhat crown-like construction, I decided to take pictures in a nearby city that has a grand historic city hall and formal gardens (the same location as the Hat That Got Away pictures, though most of those were interior shots).
This hat is fun, but it's one of the less comfortable ones to wear. Because it's rounder than my head and resisted reshaping, the hat more or less perches atop my head instead of fitting it. Maybe that's why this hat is in such great condition--the original owner hardly wore it. When I ordered the hats from Goodwill, I thought this one might be the prize of the two yellow ones, but after wearing both, I have to say the other is a MUCH easier hat to wear. My guess is that this hat would work best perched on a giant bouffant hairdo, which I refuse to attempt, despite my overgrown quarantine hair.
Maybe this will be one of the hats I pass on to a new owner after this project. On the other hand, since it fits nicely in one of my smallest hat boxes, it's really no trouble to keep it. One of the weird things about me and hats is that I just like to HAVE them. I don't have to wear them or even think about them. I get satisfaction simply from possessing them. I guess that's what collecting is about: not utility but compulsion.
This elegant black hat is the last of the hats in the collection Sandra gave to me that included the brown wool hat, the red Breton, the black hat with scarf, and the embellished white pillbox, and the red velvet hat. Like the others, this hat is in a basic color, but the details are beautiful: The layered ribbon bow, the bit of embellished netting, the cord around the body that gives this pillbox a more defined shape than the classic straight sides.
Perhaps the most interesting detail is one no one but the wearer sees: the mod fruit-patterened fabric lining. The lining coupled with the shape makes me think the hat is from the early sixties. Note the union made tag that signals this is a vintage hat.
This is the first time I’ve worn this hat. It was the runner up for the tea luncheon with my friend Kate, but I decided it was more of a church hat. Of course, now I can’t wear it to church, since gatherings are cancelled because of the virus, but I did wear it to our charming downtown.
My husband (the photographer for all these shots) and I often head downtown for pictures. I pose against historic storefronts and brick walls, down alleys and against spray-painted back walls (I photoshopped out some graffiti). We've also shot in the park and on the play equipment, at the old Carnegie library, and at the children’s museum,. About a quarter of all the shots in The Hat Project are from downtown.
The town I live in started as a spa town because of the natural hot springs (the reason a couple of blocks occasionally smell like sulfur). People built a train station and a hotel to capitalize on the spring’s healing power. The famous Polish pianist Paderewski came to the springs, which he credited with helping heal his injured hands. He planted a zinfandel vineyard nearby, an early adopter of the current major industry of the area, winemaking.
Nowadays, the town relies mostly on wine tourism for its economy. Our downtown is full of cute shops, now shuttered for the pandemic, and good restaurants, now doing a limited takeout business for locals. It’s sad to wander around the mostly empty streets. I just hope the businesses make it. Even when they open, it will be a long time before the tourists return.
However, one of the first things that struck me about this town when I moved here was the public-spiritedness of the locals. The tractor parade that brings out the crowds, the free pancake breakfast during the county fair. The fundraiser for playground equipment and the support for the Paderewski festival. The friendliness that would give a box of hats to a complete stranger.
I’m grateful for the hats and I’m grateful for this town for taking me in. Here’s hoping we come roaring back.
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New Year’s Eve. In my cubical at work, I noticed on my wrist a weird-looking sore filled with a clearish liquid. I'd never seen anything like it. Huh, I thought. Did a bug bite me?
I felt a little feverish, but I didn’t connect it to the strange sore on my wrist. And I really didn’t want to think I was sick. It was New Year’s Eve! My boyfriend and I and a group of friends had tickets to a party at a hotel, the kind where everybody dressed in their fanciest clothes and danced the new year in. I’d seen so many movies with those kinds of parties, including When Harry Met Sally, but I’d never been to one. I’d always wanted to go. That year, I’d talked my friends into it and purchased the (at age 24 or 25, for me) expensive tickets. It was finally happening.
Like most people in the office, I cut out early that day. When I got home, I took my temperature. It was over 100 and climbing. I had to admit it: I was sick. But I wanted to go so badly, had been looking forward to the party for so long.
I decided I would attend anyway. I wore my favorite black dress (the same one I wore as Madame X) with a silver belt and a new hat: black with silver-patterned lace. I was running a pretty high fever, but I didn’t have other symptoms. I’d already forgotten about the weird sore on my wrist. So, I went to the party. Though it wasn’t as wonderful as a movie party, it was still fun. As CDs had recently ousted vinyl as the music format of choice, the decorators had hung records from the ceiling as decorations. (I remember one called “Rubber Glove Seduction”). No live band, but a D.J. played good music. I loved to dance so much, I almost forgot my fever.
The lighting conditions were terrible for photos, but here I am, running a fever of 101 or so, showered with confetti. Living my dream.
The next morning, New Year’s Day. I woke up still feverish, with many more spots. That’s when it finally occurred to me that I might have the chicken pox. According to my mom, I’d never had it, though sometimes she said I might have had a light case when I was a baby. I didn’t put much stock in that “light case” business, and had always avoided situations where I might be exposed. I don’t know how I got it. In those days, there was no vaccine.
Since it was New Year’s Day, I didn’t go to the doctor and get diagnosed until the next day. The doctor's office had me come and go by a side entrance, avoiding the lobby. My doctor prescribed bed rest, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths. Then she said that I needed to quarantine myself for two weeks and tell everyone I’d been in contact with what I had.
I called my friends, all of whom had had chicken pox as children. I dialed in to a meeting and told my team at the office. Though one guy said he hadn’t had it, he fortunately didn’t come down with it. But there was nothing I could do about all the strangers at that party I'd exposed.
I really wish I had gotten to this hat before the coronavirus hit. As I wrote this, I wondered if I should put a trigger warning before it. Because I behaved so stupidly and selfishly, I exposed many people to a very unpleasant disease. I was ashamed of myself. This hat took on bad associations, not of the chicken pox itself so much as of the aftermath, of having to confess to so many people that I had exposed them, and of feeling guilty about all the strangers. I don’t think I ever wore this hat again till now.
So maybe it’s appropriate that I wore this hat during a shelter at home pandemic, quarantined again.
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My best friend, Michelle, (who gave me the dress in The First Hat) was getting married, and I knew I wanted a hat for the occasion.
She’d asked me to sing during the ceremony. “We like this song, ‘The Wedding Song’? Have you heard of it?”
“Everyone’s heard of it,” I replied, relieved that she hadn’t asked for something more obscure and difficult. Having never sung a solo at a wedding before, I was glad to sing a song I already knew. Hopefully familiarity would keep my voice from quavering.
Michelle had a beautiful outdoor venue for the ceremony, so a hat would be very appropriate. And one day, as I was walking through an art fair, I saw this blue hat. I especially liked its small brim, which wouldn’t block my vision or get in my way during singing. I really liked the blue color, as well. I was sure I could easily match it.
Well, I couldn’t. It turned out the hat was a warm grayish blue that didn’t match any of the summery, flowery frocks I’d pictured. I finally settled on a print coat dress of navy with light blue accents, not a typical dress for a garden wedding. Here we are, after the ceremony:
I put off writing this post because when I started this blog, Michelle and I hadn’t talked for a couple of years. Even when we’d lived nearby, it was hard to get together. She worked full time and had two kids. Since I worked evenings, our schedules didn't mesh well for phone calls, and we'd usually have to try several times before reaching each other.
Because of her kids, going out was difficult for her and coming to my house was just as hard. So if we got together, it had to be dinner at her place. I felt bad never being able to host.
And of course, our lives were different. She had children and I didn’t. She had a high-powered job and I worked part time. We didn’t work in the same field or pursue the same hobbies. However, a friend you've had since grade school is not like another friend. You've known each other so long that history has a gravitational pull that helps hold you together. But that pull can weaken.
After I moved four years ago, she’d called me a few times, and once we’d gotten together when I visited the Bay Area, but it was hard keeping in contact. She’s not on social media. She had a home email but wasn’t in the habit of checking it often. I didn't have a smart phone and didn't text.
One day when I was feeling sad and lonely after the move, I wrote her a note saying I didn’t think we should keep up the friendship if we had so little contact.
Of course, when I was over my depressed mood, I regretted my note. I treasured our contact, even if it wasn't constant. I wrote her a couple of emails to the old email address I had, but I wasn’t sure she’d even gotten them. I sent Christmas cards. I could have called her, but I hesitated. I wasn’t sure she’d want a call from me, since I’d been the one to sever the friendship.
When I wrote about her in the first hat blog entry, I emailed her to tell her about it. As usual, I wasn’t sure if my mail had reached her--the address was over four years old, and she had never seemed to check it much.
Months passed. When I was preparing to write about the Black Cloche with Red Flowers, I searched through my stash of old pictures fruitlessly for the shot of me at the ship’s wheel. Then my husband got out his box of pictures. While looking through them, he came across some I’d taken of Michelle and her sister and mother at her bridal shower. (I didn’t have a camera at that time and had borrowed his.) We had double prints. I gathered the extras of the shower pictures and sent them to her.
She called me to thank me, and we talked for the first time in a few years, catching up. Being reconnected felt wonderful, a burden lifted, a tie restored. I'd missed Michelle, her warmth, generosity, and humor. When the pandemic struck, we texted each other to make sure our families were OK. And then, when I wanted to write this post, I texted her, asking if she was OK with me using the wedding picture. She said yes, adding how cute we looked. I think we look cute because we look so happy.
So, it’s a good thing I waited to wear this hat, so I could give the story a happy ending. Michelle holds a special place in my heart. With no one else outside my family do I have such a shared history: gathering in our grade school club that met under a pine tree, drinking lemonade in her tree house, calling before seventh grade started to discuss what outfit to wear, passing notes on the high school choir tour bus ride, listening to each other’s early heartbreaks, serving her my horrible first attempt to grill fish in my first apartment, introducing boyfriends, being in each other’s weddings. Being there for each other through so much of life. I’m glad I didn’t lose Michelle, whose friendship means so much to me.
Of all the art fair hats I’ve bought, only the milliner of this one, Delores Pride, put her phone number in it. I haven’t called it—that was her phone number in the 90s, but it shows that this is a pre-internet hat. Now a hatmaker would likely put in a URL, or even a Twitter or Instagram handle.
I don’t know whether she still sews hats or not, but this is an especially well-made hat. The bow is on a pin for decorative flexibility, but she’s tacked it down to stay in place. So you can remove it if you like, but as long as it’s on the hat, it’s staying put and not curling or shifting.
The style is cute, too, sort of an adorned, slightly casual pillbox. So why haven’t I worn it for years?
The fabric. I loved it when I chose it, but to me, this hat’s fabric has not dated well. The tapestry look has not been in style for a while. If you don’t believe me, type “tapestry vest” into Etsy and see what wonders from the eighties and nineties come up. Also, though when I bought this hat, I thought of it as purple, in reality it has just as much beige as purple. Beige is the color (if you can call beige a color) that looks the worst on me.
I would probably still wear it often if I had simply chosen a different fabric.
I had a plan for wearing this hat…I was going to go wine tasting. The pattern is of grapes and leaves:
I thought it would be a nice fall hat, but I didn’t get to it this fall. No problem, I thought. I’ll wait till spring when the vines leaf out again. Of course, I didn’t count on every wine tasting room being closed.
So, instead of tasting, we drove out to a local winery for curbside pickup. They kindly let us walk around the grounds. If you have a favorite local business to support (be it winery, restaurant, auto shop, etc.) now is the time!
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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.