The Real Hons of Baltimore: Annual festival shines light on history of city's working women
At Pandora's Hair Design in Highlandtown, Clara Tana Weber unwinds her client's rollers one by one, teasing her tendrils into larger blonde tufts with a comb. The 75-year-old pats them into a perfect round form and then covers them in clouds of hairspray for at least 15 seconds, creating a hold she says will last all week.
Weber, who has been doing hair since she was 18, says this is the start of the styling process for the bouffant hairdos she wore in the 1960s. Back then, the saying was "the higher the hair, the closer to God," Weber says, reminiscing about an era when ornate updos were sometimes dyed pale pink or decorated with flowers for special occasions.
Times have changed, but each spring, women like Weber can count on a reminder of their pasts. Hampden's annual Honfest, returning June 10 and 11, pays homage to the signature styles of the "hon" — a "Bawlmerese" word short for "honey" that has come to define the city's typically white working class women of the 1960s — with droves of women, men, children and even dogs donning piled-high hair, cat-eye glasses, lycra leggings and animal prints.
Though their outfits were extravagant, Baltimore's original hons, now retirement age and beyond, say their fashion sense was rooted in the identity of working mother and community caretaker.
Grace Lyndsay, 76, has been wearing her hair in a voluminous updo for around 50 years. The Patterson Park resident used to decorate her hair with bee pins up the side, adding hairpieces to make her coiffure cascade several inches from her head.
"I love my hair from here all the way to Kalamazoo, honey," Lyndsay said, adding that she still goes through a can of hairspray a week — spraying when she wakes, before she goes out and again before she sleeps.
"We would spray with lacquer, and you could get caught in a windstorm and it wouldn't move, honey. And at night time, I'd wrap it in toilet paper, and it stayed then for the week," Lyndsay said.
The routine might seem excessive, but the self-described former hon points out that there were practical considerations in play.
"You were a mother, so you had to take care of your children, so your hair was always done," she said. "You had your nails done. All you had to do was get up, take a bath and put your makeup on, and get on with your day."
The motivation behind their clothing choices was similar, according to Sally Di Marco, an associate professor and fashion design program coordinator at Stevenson University School of Design. In the post-World War II era, women asserted new independence, working as hairdressers, waitresses and factory workers.
"[The women] worked hard all week, and then on the weekends, they wanted to party, so they started to dress real good," said Di Marco, who has lived in the Baltimore area since 1958, observing the evolution in style. Women traded in the loose housecoats they wore during the week for cinched-in waists on the weekend, a look popularized by French designer Christian Dior.
Hairdresser Sue Ebert gives a tutorial on how to style a beehive hairdo with some help from her daughter, Gabrielle Willey. (Amy Davis, Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
Women wore bright colors, sported pants and capris, and emphasized an hourglass figure. Dresses became rounded and softer. Ballerina length hems were all the rage. And cat-eye glasses — created to fit etchings and rhinestones on their edges — emerged.
"Then it just kind of mushroomed from there. The gaudier, the better," Di Marco said.
Bonnie Hockstein, a 68-year-old Canton resident, said the looks made a woman of limited means feel glamorous.
"We had no money [growing up], and this was what made us feel special — just to wear all kinds of jewelry and to put on flashy clothes, rhinestones, and this made us feel like we had money," she said. "Maybe we didn't have good taste, but we would think we did because everything glittered and everything was brightly colored, and we got lots of attention wherever we went. ... That's why we dressed up."
Though some of these trends were popular nationally — celebrities like The Ronettes, Audrey Hepburn and Aretha Franklin, for instance, sported beehive updos — Baltimore's working class crowd "took it into our possession," Di Marco said. But many women of the era say the hon persona is about more than the right hair and clothes.
Hockstein's mother, Dorothy Bucci, 90, of Dundalk was in her 40s during the emergence of the beehive hairdo and brightly-colored clothes. She sported the updo at least a handful of times, using a special pillow to prop her neck up at night to avoid crushing its perfect form. Most times, however, Bucci, who grew up near Patterson Park, was too busy working to party or pay attention to fashion trends, she said. The beehive didn't look good on her, and it was often too expensive to go to the salon, she added.
"I was never into that," she said.
Still, she was a hon — a hard working woman — in her own right.
Married at 19 and a mother at 21, Bucci raised two children by herself, working as a waitress day and night, depending on the support of the close network of women in the community, she said.
"We all lived as a family. We were all broke, and so we helped each other in different ways," Bucci said. With many husbands absent — some away at war or working from afar — the women banded together, watching out for each other's children and hosting gatherings. They used words like "hon" when referring to loved ones (or when they forgot names), she said.
Hockstein, a member of the Baltimore Hon Hive — an organization of modern-day hons and entertainers who attend events and participate in philanthropic endeavors while dressing the part — has organized the main stage of the Honfest since 2007, hoping to bring back that feeling of community.
She admires the brazen and compassionate attitude of her mother's generation, she said, often personified by kitschy style, gum chewing, the love of community gatherings like church suppers and duckpin bowling, and of course, the avid use of a distinct Bawlmerese vernacular.
Lyndsay is among them, using words like "hon" and "babe" as terms of endearment. She still frequents establishments like Highlandtown's G&A Restaurant, where hons like her and her mother used to go.
The sights and sounds of Baltimore's HonFest. (Caitlin Faw & Colin Campbell, Baltimore Sun video)
She's never been to Honfest, but she's lived the life others are emulating for the weekend, and she's flattered.
"I think that's a compliment," she said, describing a hon as "a woman that takes pride in her appearance and how she treats people."
Weber hasn't been to the festival, either, but she thinks it's a fun way to celebrate the past.
"I'd get excited," she said, but "I don't appreciate the hair wrapped in beer cans and stuff like that, because I didn't do that."
No doubt, some of the looks are exaggerated, according to Di Marco.
"It's become a lot of drama that isn't necessarily of the time period, but some people do a great job with it," she said.
Sue Ebert, 56, who has been styling hair at Honfest for around 16 years, said the exaggeration and indulgence is all part of the fun.
"We're not making fun of anyone. No one dresses like that anymore, but it's just a celebration," said the freelance hair stylist, who goes through 14 pounds of bobby pins and about 40 cans of hairspray at the festival. "I'll have 80-year-old women come up and say 'Oh my God, I remember when.' … It's generation after generation of people just having fun with the hair, the glitter, the glamor and all of that."
The 23rd annual Honfest featured all of the usual old-timey "Bawlmer" flair — towering beehive hairdos in various colors, cat's-eye glasses, pink feather boas galore — and crowds packing the Avenue in Hampden to enjoy the music, food and people-watching.