Ryan Taylor The stories that hats can tell
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By Ryan Taylor

The son of one of my cousins was married a couple of weeks ago. It was too far for me to go to the wedding, but I told my cousin I hoped she would be wearing a big, glamorous hat as Mother of the Groom.

She made a face and said firmly, "No hat!"

Most women today feel that way about hats. Although weddings in England have female guests in enormous hats (remember Andie McDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral?), almost no one wears a hat to a wedding here, let alone for everyday.

It was different in the past. Women had hats for every season and occasion. Hats might even be a chance to express their personality, although there were always fashions to consider. One of the women in The Forsyte Saga laments about 'the hats they are making us wear this season'-but who was holding the gun to her head?

Hats were also supposed to be good for women psychologically. A woman who was angry at her husband would show him by going out to buy a new hat or three. In a 1950s television show, a character played by Myrna Loy was celebrating her fortieth birthday. This disaster made her so depressed, the only solution was to go out and buy a new hat.

In the days when hats (and gloves) were basic to a woman's appearance, the millinery shops in every town thrived. They would make up hats to be bought as is, but they would also trim hats to a customer's specifications, ensuring she had a unique specimen.

The late Nora MacKendrick told of the annual spring hat extravaganza in Galt, Ontario. "The stores, Woods and Taylor and Wilkinson's, each had a millinery department. Then there was Miss Shepherd's on Water Street, a hat shop. In the spring there was the opening. It was quite an occasion.

"They had prepared all the Easter bonnets, and on a certain day in the spring, they had all their hats on display. That was at the time when hats were made or trimmed in the millinery department as it was. Women of the town all went down and made the rounds of the stores, checking out the spring fashions. Possibly buying a hat, but certainly looking them over. Then you went to the tea room and had a cup of tea. If it by any chance happened to be the same day that the flood came down, that was a big day!."

The last remark refers to the spring thaw flood of the Grand River, which annually caused excitement in Galt.

When my Aunt Mildred was married in 1941, my father took a lot of pictures. It was a big year for stand-up hats, hearts, circles and points all heading for the sky, with feathers added to make them higher. A line-up of my grandmother and her sisters grinning at the camera always causes comment: those hats and, lower down, all those skinny legs.

Next time you're visiting your grandmother, ask her if she had a favourite hat when she was young. Or if she had a hat adventure buying something for a wedding, a big date or her first trip overseas. I bet she has a story to tell, and you can all laugh together in that wonderful land of social customs that used to be.

Posted July 28, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

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