Hazel Butler was a little unsure about whether she should enter the hat contest. When you're 90 years old, you don't take such matters lightly.
The contest, a signature event at the 91st annual Flower Mart yesterday, attracted the usual cheery mix of birds, butterflies, Ascot clones, Edwardian finery and Carmen Miranda fruit baskets to Mount Vernon Place.
But the brimmed straw-weave number on Butler's head was infinitely more modest. "I don't know if I should," she said as her potential competitors swooped by, feathers fluttering, to line up at the foot of the main stage in the Washington Monument's shadow.
"Oh, go ahead," said Reid Hawkins, the 14-year-old student-body president at St. Philip Neri School, who happened to overhear Butler's expressed ambivalence. "I would definitely talk to the judges for you."
Charmed by the lad's graciousness, Butler insisted that he and his schoolmates, Marta Stachorowski and Courtney Fair, both 13 and wearing specially commissioned hats of their own, pose for a picture. Then, summoning her nerve, Butler ascended the stage. The category being judged at that moment was "most creative," and each contestant was asked to describe her headgear for the crowd.
"The most creative part of it was carrying it home from Thailand and not getting it squashed," Butler said into the microphone, to a wave of laughter.
"She's my new best friend," Reid said, his effort at confidence-building a success.
Moments of levity came thick and fast at the Flower Mart, where dozens of vendors of flowers, plants, artworks and crafts, food and jewelry put their best face on, as they always do, for the thousands of people expected to stroll through before the event wraps up this evening.
Earlier, on the same stage, a nine-member a capella singing group called Traveling Men, composed of teenage boys from Gilman School, delivered a mellifluous rendition of the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere," to rousing applause.
"We've always talked about taking it to the streets and making some money," Gabe Donnay, an 18-year-old baritone, said after the gig.
"They're really good," said Alex Hand, 15, who had been listening with two friends, all from St. Paul's School for Girls. Asked whether they had enjoyed the performance because they like music or because the guys were cute, she replied, "Both." Her friends giggled.
"I've been going to school with boys since I was 2, so no big deal," said Emma Brooks, 15.
The three girls, in flip-flops, breezy tops and shorts, had changed out of the elaborate Victorian regalia and wildly flowered hats that they had worn for the mart's unveiling ceremony a few hours before.
"We were supposed to wear them all day, but my grandmother said it was too hot," Alex said, referring to Mary Lapides, a member of the Flower Mart's organizing committee.
Emily Waters, a 17-year-old visual-arts student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, wore a bright pink, 1950s-style waitress dress as she set up her flower-and-herb stand, an outpost of her mother's shop, In the Garden on West Baltimore Street.
"You've got to catch people's attention," Emily said as she bustled about, lining up little pots of lavender, basil and thyme. "Tomorrow, I'll be wearing a fabulous, black-and-white striped, polka-dot pink dress, and it's the coolest dress you'll catch at the event."
It was Emily's third year at the Flower Mart, which, given the presence of larger and more established vendors, she said, can be a "hit-or-miss" business proposition.
"It's all in the presentation," she said. "We never do annuals, for example, because all the Catholic schools do them, and everyone wants to buy annuals from the cute little Catholic girls in their plaid skirts."
Emily's choice of outfit honored this year's "color theme" for the Flower Mart - hot pink and black.
For Shelly Baker, who owns Shelly's Blossom Shop on East Lexington Street, the color scheme was evident in her outfit and that of her 3-year-old son, Dylan, who wore a black vest and bow tie, and a magician's black top hat with a hot-pink daisy pinned to its brim.
Dylan was less concerned with sartorial splendor than with the soap bubbles emanating from a plastic wand, the kind his mother was selling for $5 each.
For lovers of flowers, there were geraniums, hibiscus, coleus, Gerber daisies, petunias, lobelia and New Guinea impatiens.
Aficionados of classic cars gazed longingly at several beautiful beasts, including a convertible, pearl-gray 1957 Jaguar XK140, owned by Harvey Miller of Cockeysville.
The food lines, as ever, were interminable. "Look, it's lunchtime," said Allen B. Taylor, who owns London Court Beverage Co., which dispensed exotic "Polynesian" drinks in a tiki-bar setting. "I don't care how many food vendors you have, you'll always have lines. But at about 3 o'clock, you'll have no problem."
The governor's wife, Catherine Curran O'Malley, stopped for a vanilla latte at Taylor's stand and tried to pay for it with a $20 bill but was firmly rebuffed. Taylor's wife, Dottie, told her that she was not about to take money from the first lady. O'Malley gave up, thanked her and moved on to her assigned task, which was to read a story for children at the Bee Hive in East Park.
For Patricia Hill, who was born and raised in Baltimore, it was her first time at the event.
"I've never come to the Flower Mart - it's amazing," said Hill, admissions director for Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. "I always say I'm going to come down, but I see all the traffic, and I steer clear."