When a hat is more than a hat
Jul 10, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Many vintage accessories are mainstays in today’s fashion world. Hats, it seems, are still waiting on their comeback moment – which is a shame because there is such a rich, layered history to these pieces. However, one such historic moment has taken its rightful place in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Read along and discover when a hat is more than a hat as we join the Smithsonian in celebrating Mae Reeves.
Born Lula Mae, in 1912 Georgia, Mae went on to become one of Philadelphia’s first female entrepreneurs. This is no small feat in and of itself, but the fact that she was an African American woman in the early 20th century meant the barriers she had to overcome were even more pronounced. To add to that, she was also a single mom, who had herself lost her parents when she was a teenager. Mae’s passion to create goodness came from deep within because despite these early tragedies (the death of her parents and first husband, compounded by the stress of moving North for opportunity), she bravely forged ahead. Following her 28th birthday, Mae secured a small business loan and her dream was set in motion.
You see for Mae, a hat was more than a hat. A fanciful topper was a powerful accessory, giving its wearer confidence in an uncertain world. Mae captured joy, whimsy, and drama in each unique work. Her shop was legendary in its own right, known for its welcoming atmosphere as much as the beautiful, artistic creations it generated. Clients were transported the moment they entered Mae’s Millinery Shop, seated on a plush love seat and served champagne, this escape from the urban landscape provided tranquility and luxury. Mae considered every detail, even keeping makeup on hand so ladies could get the full effect during their fittings. This holistic approach made all the difference and it shows when you consider her clientele. Rich and powerful, famous, middle-class all mingled happily within the shop’s four walls.
Some of Mae’s biggest advocates were the emerging Hollywood set like Lena Horne or iconic signers such as Ella Fitzgerald. These were women, who despite extraordinary talent, battled daily with racism. Mae’s hats were more than just an accessory and the author Tiffany Gill brilliantly captured that sentiment with this excerpt from a 2016 NPR interview. “When I see older women who still wear hats to church on Sunday or bring them out on special occasions, it’s just a reminder to revere that generation and the ways they asserted dignity when to be black and to be a woman was something that brought about ridicule.”
The Smithsonian has lovingly recreated Mae’s shop, making it a permanent exhibit. Naturally its fifty-seven year history is reflected in the array of brightly-colored hats proudly on display. But the curators also sought to showcase the profound cultural impact of the shop. A shop that would transform into a voting location for the neighborhood. A shop where all classes and races would gather and join in conversation. A shop where a hat was more than a hat. After all, everyone makes a statement through fashion. As Dapper Dan eloquently summarized in a recent interview with CBS Sunday Morning, “nothing transforms a person quicker than a garment.” Wearing vintage allows us to not only make our own statement, but also gives us the chance to tap into the power of history. Tell me dear reader, what vintage accessory is your favorite? How do you feel when you don a topper and strut your stuff? Let us know in the comments…