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Family's women know it's Easter by the parade of hats

The Baltimore Sun

My grandmother was buying Easter bonnets for four daughters long before Irving Berlin's song hit the airways and made hats the defining spring accessory.

A new hat easily diverted attention from a hand-me-down frock to a sweet little face surrounded by ribbons and flowers. Four new outfits might have strained the family budget, but perky straw hats that tied daintily under the chin were doable.

Grand's taste for hats grew as her financial picture improved. She left us a bedroom -- not a closet, an entire room -- full of veiled, feathered and furred hats, all encased in tissue and stored in signature hatboxes from Baltimore's long-gone millinery shops.

The daughters, now well into their 70s, still inadvertently compete for best hat, donning one for the Easter Sunday service and ensuing family gatherings. In the days when women had to wear hats to church and men could not, the anticipation of my aunts out-topping each other would get me to church on time.

Over the years, my mother and her sisters treated us to the stunning millinery that was the power dressing of their era. Many stand out, like the pale pink turban that was nearly the same shade as the cocktail dress. That aunt later told us the turban was a towel from her linen closet, a last-minute selection because she had no time to dry her shampooed hair.

Outfits sometimes started with the hat and worked down. A gold-and-white number that had the look of a lampshade spawned a gold dress with matching shoes and bag. It made the petite woman look positively statuesque.

My personal favorite was a stark white toque that framed the face like a helmet. I know my aunt still has that one because a young Sen. Bobby Kennedy complimented her on it at a political fundraiser. The way she repeatedly tells it, he smiled and said, "Nice hat."

I can't remember a wedding or funeral that didn't include elegant hats -- outlandish and colorful, or veiled and somber. A wide-brimmed, bright floral number appears throughout my sister's wedding album. It was so "over the top" that reception guests, including several men, posed in it.

Sumptuous millinery can compensate for the lack of hair skills and hide a multitude of coiffeur miscues. Hats can cover wet heads, bed heads, the haircut that went to extremes, the perm that frizzed and the dark roots that belie the blond.

While I tried to carry on the tradition, the family album proves that, after the crocheted baby bonnet age, I never found my style. The green straw bucket overpowered the high-school me. Some prankster held two fingers behind me posing in a red felt bowler, making it look like I was about to take off. I never could keep any pillbox on my head.

One Easter photo caused Mom to place a lifelong shopping ban on Dad.

Illness had forced her to concede the outfit search to my father. He went no farther than the Five and Dime, where he quickly selected for his young daughters three of the same wide white bands that had to be placed mid-head.

The attached trim of weighty plastic fruit kept the hat off balance and made the band slip down the forehead. The snapshot shows the three of us standing in front of a white picket fence with fake fruit falling into our eyes.

The next time Mom couldn't go, Grand stepped in. I loved those excursions because, by then, her purse was bottomless. She would buy us hats, gloves, patent-leather shoes, a dress and, whether the weather warranted it or not, an Easter coat. No outfit was complete without a top. Even my sisters, whose beautiful curls should never be hidden under a hat, submitted to the dictates of hat fashion.

I still see beautiful hats at church, but there is a decline of little girls in Easter bonnets. Maybe a new song from a modern diva could bring them back.

When I took my three granddaughters Easter shopping a few weeks ago, we settled on shiny white shoes and smocked dresses. I am sure hats are around for their set, but we didn't see any.

None of Grand's great-great granddaughters will wear an Easter bonnet today. But, if heredity bears out, they will be delightfully distracted by the ladies who do.

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