Flowers are old hat.
To be sure, there were plenty of spring blooms at yesterday's festive fair around the Washington Monument, the 84th Flower Mart since 1911. But it was the hats that stopped traffic.
Heads turned at some of the arresting creations perched on the heads of women, some of whom designed their own for the chance to parade a hat in public without standing out in a crowd.
Hundreds turned out in picture-perfect weather for spring's annual rite, including a contingent of 15 women from the Charlestown Retirement Village in Catonsville, who joined in the hat spirit. One free spirit wore a rhinestone-studded cap.
"People really went wild with the hats," remarked Melissa Bierer, 21, whose father, Frederick L. Bierer, presided over the Flower Mart for the second straight year. Her boyfriend, Justin Blische, 20, an art student, even entered the hat contest, which was for many the zenith of the Flower Mart experience, surpassing the Brass Elephant crab cakes, truffle caterers' booth and signature lemon sticks.
There was more competition than anyone remembered in the chapeau contest, and more hats spotted in the general population of women, prompting a police lieutenant, Joe Darchicourt, to remark, "I've never seen more hats."
Every hat gave a hint, sometimes a statement, of the woman wearing it. Cathy Jacobs, 43, and her prospective mother-in-law, Jane Tilton, 79, walked around like chums in matching hats and dresses. A glamorous black ostrich-feather hat from England seemed to suit Jennifer Vitale, 35, though she laughingly described it as "outlandish."
Councilwoman Agnes Welch of the 4th District sat on a cafe table wearing state colors, gold and black, and a hat adorned with fake Black-eyed Susans that were close enough to the real thing. "My granddaughter Tiffany made it for me last year and spruced it up last night," she said, adding, "I'm so glad they continued this Baltimore tradition."
Originally organized by a group of women to fund a league devoted to improving Baltimore's health and sanitation, the Flower Mart was known as a "gay and colorful" affair for most of the 20th century, according to the Women's Civic League's published history. When the aging membership recently gave up the reins, some feared the event would end.
Bierer is credited with giving the quaint fair a more contemporary flair with jazz music and more crafts, food and flower vendors. Sporting an off-white hat and seersucker suit, he said, "You are what your history is. I wanted to create a new generation who would love this city like I do."
Joking about his new ensemble, the lawyer said, "I haven't worn seersucker since I was barmitzvahed, and I think I'll wear [the hat] the rest of my days."
Bierer was one of the only men to don a hat for the occasion, though Mayor Martin O'Malley briefly tried on his wife Katie's white flowered hat during the formalities. "I did wear it for a few minutes," said Katie O'Malley. "It looked much better on him."
Peta Richkus, Maryland's secretary of general services, wore her hat to work at a state office building before walking up the hill at lunchtime. "I wore it to spread the word," said Richkus, 53.
Bettie C. Mueller, 70, president of the Women's Civic League, said she got a green flower for her hat "especially" for the Flower Mart, to signify Ireland. Looking at a casually dressed woman with no hat, she whispered, "I don't think you should come like that."
Ernestine Smith and Ruth Thornton, both in their 70s, paused on their way to hear church organ music to explain that they bought and decorated their linen and straw hats. "It does your heart good," Smith said, speaking of the music.
The grand prize in the hat contest went to Jennifer Lavender White, 29, who designed her sleek, silver flapper's hat and sequined scarf. She came from Alexandria, Va., to compete. Her career goal is to become a milliner, clearly a growth industry in Mount Vernon in May.