The slightly ridiculous -- yet very special -- Easter hat


There is always something slightly ridiculous about an Easter hat.

Women who normally dress conservatively, soberly, like good, God-fearing church women, make a stunning exception for Easter Sunday.

You don't much see the certifiable Easter bonnet I recall from the 1950s. I speak of the head-borne fruit salads, full of limbs full of artificial cherries and dangling dogwood flowers or swollen purple grapes. Some looked as if they were designed by Mardi Gras or Pasadena Rose Bowl parade float makers. And, as XTC ridiculous as they were, I can remember the hats long after I'd forgotten the other parts of the carefully assembled spring outfit.

One year my Aunt Cora O'Hare found a crownpiece dripping with artificial lilies of the valley. I was sure the whole church would gossip about its degree of outrageousness when she took to the main aisle of the church. When that hour arrived, I calmed down. Every female in the congregation was engaging in millinery madness.

As a child of 6 or 7, I marveled at the way my mother, grandmother and aunt nurtured their hat collections. Their dozens of headpieces sat on shelves constructed at the top of the closets. The Roman aqueduct builders could not pile stone upon stone the way these women stacked their circular, hexagonal and ovoid hat boxes, their insides all cradled in white tissue paper. Each hat box had a distinctive design and imprint. My favorite was that of the Dobbs firm, the New York chapeau maker whose elaborate boxes had a painting of Fifth Avenue in the double-decker bus era.

Hutzler's boxes were pretty special, too -- the old ones, 20 years out of date but never discarded -- were orange and black, with the Washington Monument in silhouette. Others were burgundy and pink, tied with a heavy braided cord. Charles Street's Schoen Russell's boxes were a dark, hunter green. Stewart's were gray, with the script lettering. Hochschild Kohn's were white, with miniatures of the War Memorial and City Hall outlined in gold.

Who were the trend-setters of that era? The first ladies of the land, I believe. In the 1950s, the style was cast by Mamie Eisenhower and her little birds' nests. When Jackie Kennedy donned the pert pillbox hat, Mamie's veiled toppers dropped from sight. The Bouvier look arrived. Come Easter Sunday, my eyes rolled. The Easter outfits were tone poems of color. Some looked more appropriate for the Club House at Pimlico than the communion rail at SS. Philip and James.

From my pew, I quietly observed the side show of costumes. Most costumes were merely ridiculous, but one Easter Sunday, there was a beautiful young woman whose head gear was plain, yet elegant, but her face was shrouded by a large square of heavy brown veiling. I often wondered if this woman of mystery was a young widow or merely someone trying to pull off Baltimore's version of Greta Garbo.

There was no mystery, however, about how long it took my mother and aunts to select a hat. The process could take days.

Baltimore's department stores were equipped for the Easter bonnet trade. I recall large sections of selling floors with separate dressing tables, benches and mirrors. There were hat trees laden with masterpieces of the art of millinery. Women spent hours at these thrones of springtime vanity.

There was no itchy wool suit, starched white shirt or binding neck tie equal to a prematurely hot, early spring day spent waiting while the right hat was chosen at some downtown Baltimore hat salon.

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