The Madame X Hat
“That’s a real knife!”
Not the reaction I’d hoped for when I planned my Halloween costume. I was the mysterious woman dressed in black, a hat’s heavy veil hiding my face. And yes, I was carrying a knife. Of sorts. “I got it at Target for like, three bucks. I doubt it will cut anything.”
My coworker looked dubious. Obviously, she didn’t understand my costume.
The company I worked for just after college sometimes seemed an extension of college. They hired a lot of new grads and every Friday had a beer bust with a keg that some employees stayed late into the evening to drain. On Halloween, a good chunk of the company showed up to work in costume. Many product teams coordinated into group costumes: convicts, or pirates, or, memorably, laundry, with their shirts clothespinned to a clothesline so they had to move together.
The Halloween beer bust took place in the empty lowest floor of the parking garage. The company rock band (yes, we had one) came dressed as KISS and played “The Monster Mash” for their opener—the electric guitar and drums echoing off the concrete pillars, floor, and ceiling.
I thought my costume was clever. I (of course) designed the costume around a hat. I found a vintage black hat at a thrift store. Its veil was in terrible condition, so I cut it off, bought some more opaque veiling, and pinned it to the hat. In my black dress, my face concealed, my fingers with their blood-red Lee Press-on Nails gripping a shining knife, I thought I looked like the mysterious woman in a black-and-white movie, the one who would be big trouble for the hero.
Leaving the unappreciative coworker, I moved to another group. “I’m Madame X,” I proclaimed in a dramatic, throaty voice.
“Is that a real knife?”
I sighed. “It’s from TARGET!”
Nowadays I wouldn’t think of casually carrying a chef’s knife around a work function, but back then I took it for granted that a) no one could seriously believe I was a threat, and b) no one could seriously believe such an obviously cheap knife was a danger. The plastic handle felt hollow and the blade was so flimsy it would flex if I attempted to cut brie.
Still, given the strange looks people gave me, I realized they didn’t see the Target knife the way I did. I placed it carefully at the base of concrete pillar far away from the party and went back for a Diet Coke and a handful of pretzels, no longer feeling like the mysterious Madame X. Now I was just a woman dressed in black, like an extra in a funeral scene.
Lesson learned: buy the plastic prop knife, even though it looks stupid and probably costs more that a Target knife.
I’ve had this hat for a very long time, and like the first hat, I bought it intending to use it as a costume. However, besides wearing it for Madame X, I’ve worn it (sans veil) a few non-Halloween times. I wore it once to a JewelTones singing gig when I couldn’t find my usual hat after a move. And I’ve worn it a few times with a black dress, pinning a spray of artificial flowers or a sparkling broach on it. When I took it out to wear for the blog, I noticed for the first time how discolored it has become, the black satin fading to reddish purple in many places.
It may not be the best example of vintage millinery, but like the Target knife, it’s real.
A note on the outfit. I had originally intended to wear this hat with a black dress, in true Madame X fashion, but the weather intervened, and I ended up wearing it with this blue vintage-inspired dress. Once again looking less mysterious than I'd hoped.
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Ann Hillesland writes fiction and nonfiction and collects hats. In this blog she vows to wear (not just model, but wear out of the house) every one of her hats, blogging about their histories and their meanings for her.