My Hat Wore Me to the Party

An avant-garde hat lets its wearer travel back in time.

A flamboyant, two-tiered hat of black and shimmery emerald feathers has somehow flown into my life. I imagine the lively backstory of the Golightly lampshade – a copious chronicle of its madcap owner turning heads at Glide church or in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont before being sentenced to hang for 50 years in the legendary Mrs. Dewson’s Hats on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

It was housed high up on a head form at the store, clearly outshined by an Easter parade of newly-sewn, pastel chapeaus, overwrought with fabric roses and bow adornments. It stirred in me a flurry of possible stories the way vintage discoveries both serious and frivolous stirred novelist Linda Grant, who penned the read about our relationship with fashion, The Thoughtful Dresser.

The high-heel red pump of a Polish woman; The felted quill headdress of a San Francisco church lady: Old relics capable of forging fresh awareness, if only we  let them.

I was seeking a costume hat for a King’s Speech-themed Oscar party when I hit the colorful haunt. Inspired by the romantic British glamor of the film, as well as Kate Middleton’s revival of the audacious topper as a royal statement, I sought a replica of the queen’s Ramillies style cocked hat with a feather. No dice, but as I was heading out, I looked up and was instantly mesmerized by the zany, tactile feather bucket.

“Hello, lover!”

“You talking to me?” asked the hat. “You talking to me?”

As it happened, I was also hunting props for a Sixties Rat Pack in Vegas gala also on my calendar. Anyone could see the accessory smacked of the iconic couture fashion pieces that once graced the covers of Harper’s. A hat an eye-lined Audrey surely would have modeled and a topper Lady Bird might have caged for a White House garden fete.

“May I see that black feathered hat?” I asked the kind, elderly clerk, who had already brought down a dozen boisterous Boatwright sister bonnets for me to explore, (to no avail mind you). When you have a grape-sized head such as mine, not just any hat will do. I usually have to settle for cloches or perhaps those mini sailor caps worn by a monkey grinder’s little performer.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” the clerk said, strategically inserting a band of thick foam tape around the circumference of the lining to prevent it from dropping over my eyes and onto the bumpy bridge of my nose. She knew a grape head when she saw it.

The hat fit like a glove, and I was instantly transformed to a time when women rarely left home without a head piece to keep out the dirt and look top drawer.  Think of the many hats that graced our mothers and grandmothers about town: hats to the market, to ladies luncheons, on exotic cruises, at picnics. A time traveling opportunity via the almighty hat.

Each time a new crown and brim is assembled by hand or by some factory machine, a forgotten castaway idles in an attic or on a shelf begging to be reborn.

I was told the work of art was part of milliner Ruth Garland-Dewson’s personal collection, and that she suffered from memory loss and no longer tended to the shop. “See if she’ll sell it to me,” I urged, “or at least loan it for the event.”

I could pick up a little black dress, second hand gloves, grip a martini glass, puff a fake ciggy, and cling to a fella in a fedora. Who cares that I don’t have the 24″ waist for those Mad Men party dresses that cinch like tourniquets? I could pull off the hat and still eat appetizers without busting a seam.

Turned out that for $120, the owner with memory loss forgot she didn’t want to part with the hat. That, or her sales gal deemed it was cool to let it go and make some dough. The cherry on top was the large, pink floral patterned hat box the clerk placed it in. “Are you giving that to me?” I asked, salivating.

“It’s the only thing it will fit into,” she explained.

Cut to the night I wore my hat, or rather, the night my hat wore me. I say that because when hat and I waltzed in, the only competing prop at the event was the fanned, red plumed headdress worn by one of the Vegas showgirl greeters. But seriously, she had at least two other major focal points.

All I know is from the moment I arrived, the hat took on a life of its own, me shepherding it through a red carpeted reception lounge where photographers snapped away and waiters with trays grinned and winked at my crazy head. Then I escorted it through the glitzy, gold curtained auction room where couples examining massive gift baskets and vacation packages gravitated towards us, smitten, uplifted, enamored.

The compliments gushed out as onlookers relayed the same intoxicated sensation that overcame me when I first glanced at the wild thing. Strange men approached, glanced up, gazed into my face, chuckled and uttered, “That’s wonderful!” Martian speak for “What a hat!”

Women, many in impressive late Fifties and early Sixties garb of their own (retro mink stoles from Haight Street, up-dos, foil brocaded shifts and silk pumps), tended to be more expressive. Most of them clearly perceived the Audrey-couture link, while at least three mistakenly equated it with a wardrobe staple of Cruella Deville’s. I couldn’t argue. My hat had been to church and convinced me to bite my tongue.

I  removed my crowning glory only once in five hours to shake my booty since it proved a nuisance to grind to Snoop Dog wrapped in a giant, felted brain-heater.  At home, I kicked off my heels and gently returned my lucky acquisition to her box, stashing it on a ledge in my dressing room. I paused to study myself in the mirror. I had a hideous case of matted hat hair – enhanced by a strip of foam tape stuck to the side of my sweaty bob. I literally peeled the grape.

I’m not sure where me and my Huckleberry hat friend will travel next, but I know I will find another way to let others connect with the flight of fancy vividly emanating from Ruth’s forgotten treasure, and validate what I’ve always suspected: that bygone chic endures as long as we walk the bold walk of the Mrs. Dewsons of the world, proudly picking up where their memory lapses about flaunting remarkable fashion leave off. Nothing about that is old hat.

Images: Sydney Bradley; Paul Todah; Sf Gate




Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.