Vintage Hats: Of Art and Dreams

Every time I see a pretty vintage hat on a thrift store shelf or tucked into a box at an auction, I can’t help but wonder about the woman who wore it.

Sometimes I get a clue like a neatly folded receipt or a custom label tacked inside the brim.  Sometimes I find her name written on the side of a hatbox in the fluid, confident script that comes so naturally to women of a certain age, yet another thing that is quietly fading from our collective memory right along with these felt and feather creations.


I wonder where she wore the hat that she so carefully preserved for all these years. To her cousin’s wedding? To work? To a funeral in town? There are some jaunty little numbers that I can imagine perched on her head at football games and frothy confections that must have looked spectacular by candlelight. I wonder what she loved in her life, what she hoped for and what she daydreamed about.

I don’t buy the argument that life was simpler in those days. And I don’t want to live in any era but this one. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was born at the exactly right time. Everything that makes me who I am — my work, my travels, my beliefs and my circle of family and friends — is shaped by choices, opportunities and changes in the world that my foremothers couldn’t even have dreamed of.


But I wouldn’t mind trying on a women’s hat and her life for a day, stepping back in time to see the world through her eyes and to experience the ritual of getting dressed.

Somewhere along the way — the mid ’60s, I think — fashion became less about presentation and more about personal expression and comfort. And I can’t knock that. I enjoy the benefits of this change in attitude every day that I can appear in public without a girdle and lipstick without my neighbors whispering about me. And writing about fashion would be pretty boring if we all wore the same prescribed look.

But I love the deliberate, thoughtful way people used to get dressed. I love a man in a three piece suit, the heirloom cufflinks, the perfectly knotted tie, the cherished pocket watch.

I love the images of a woman at her vanity, the careful unrolling of silk stockings, the rustle of a freshly-pressed dress as she dabs perfume in the crooks of her elbows. And it’s all topped off with a spectacular hat.


It’s a hat’s little details that always slay me, the gleam of a row of rhinestones, a gauzy veil, the whisper of a feather tucked behind the ear. Everything is precious and delicate, yet surprisingly sturdy; these little works of art have survived, after all. They still captivate us. And even though they’re so radically different from what we’re wearing today, so many of us still want to try them on.

When you buy a vintage hat, you’re taking a piece of history and giving it new life. If you want to keep it on hat stand and display it as art, that’s fine with me. So many hats are so beautiful that they’ll hold their own as the center of attention…and I’ll bet the milliners that made them would get a kick out of the at the idea that their hats were the topic of conversation at your next dinner party.


But if you really want to have fun with a vintage hat, wear it. A hat is wearable art and it’s meant to be out in the world and to be changed by it. Vintage hats are strong enough to worn by a new generation, where they’ll tell an entirely different story.

The hats in the post were worn by a mother and daughter who donated over 90 hats from the ’20 through the ’60s — as well as gloves, scarves and jewelry to the Presentation Prayer Center, a quiet Fargo retreat that offers and opportunity for prayer reflective listening for individuals and groups. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place with a great mission.

If you love these hats as much as I do, you can purchase them at the This, That and Hats benefit and silent auction tomorrow. All proceeds benefit the Presentation Prayer Center.

This, That and Hats 
May 4
2 p.m. – 4 p.m.
First Presbyterian Church
650 2nd Avenue North
Fargo, ND
Bus: Route 13, 17
Suggested Donation: $10 at the door or at the Presentation Center
Coffee and treats will be served

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