I have a lovely little photograph of my grandparents when they were very young, my grandmother only fifteen. It sits on a windowsill at the bottom of the stairwell in our house and I glanced at it this morning on my way up to my office, noticing for the first time that it has a very Downton Abbey, albeit downstairs, look to it. There is my grandfather, a handsome young tailor standing next to a lady's maid in what may be the earliest picture ever taken of her. Her small, pale face is partially hidden by a very large hat.
While he seems quite comfortable in front of the camera, she reminds me of a deer in the headlights on the first day of hunting season. I can imagine that he would been quite a catch for a girl who was the personal maid to the spoiled, overweight daughter of the former president of the Confederacy. He and his brothers were saving money to set up a tailoring shop in California, but I don't imagine she had much beyond that enormous hat she apparently was trying to hide under. It must have been very useful to have a hat like that.
The following is an excerpt from my novel, Careful Mistakes published in 1996 by Little, Brown and recently re-published as an e-book. The narrator, Jill, and her best friend Susan are going through the extensive collection of hats left by Jill's late mother.
My mother was never concerned about current fashion. Her clothes were simple, well-cut, conservative and usually in neutral colors. She wore the same styles for years without giving a thought to decrees from Seventh Avenue. Her skirts were always one inch below her knees and she never left the house in trousers, as she called them. She wore powder, lipstick and and pulled her long chestnut hair into a chignon at the base of her skull. She never would have admitted to vanity, although she watched her weight religiously. Pretty, in a quiet way, she would have faded into her surroundings had it not been for her hats.
Mother always maintained that her hats were a necessity because of her position as the Bishop's wife and because of her fair skin. She felt people needed to be reminded to dress properly in and out of church and felt that hats set a certain tone, as well as keeping her skin free of freckles.
She had sixty-seven hats when she died, I counted them and kept them all. Some were simple and dignified and some would have made Carmen Miranda green with envy. Each hat rested in black tissue within its own hatbox. Each box was labeled with an extensive description of the hat and when and where she had worn it. My mother was not by nature a saver or a keeper so when she died I didn't find bundles of letters, diaries or journals. The jewelry she left was the very same, for the most part, that she had inherited. She didn't leave anything of interest in her pockets or purses, but I could have written my mother's biography from her hatboxes.
A week after she died I packed all of clothes, shoes and handbags into boxes to be taken to the Junior Leauge thrift shop. My father would have preferred that they go to some charity sponsored by the Church, but Mother was really no more interested in the Church than most company wives are interested in that aforementioned business.
After the other boxes were gone, Susan and I tried on every hat and I began to understand my mother's passion for them. Each was a beautiful example of the milliner's dying art, but also a tiny roof, giving you warmth and privacy, hiding part of you, protecting you from that which you chose not to see.
Susan and I went through the hats every few months. We brushed each other's hair, pinning it up to resemble my mother's. Grooming each other like monkeys, we usually decided not to wear the hats after all. They would go back into the tissue and we'd sigh about fashion today and how we missed elegance.
That day was the exception because Easter was coming. Somehow, during the last few years it had become the rule that we had to wear a hat on Easter Sunday and it had to be from Mother's collection. Susan and I shared several clothing related rules between us though neither of us was sure how they came about.
'That's wonderful, put it on, just above the bun.' Susan was suddenly twenty years old, my daughter's contemporary.
'The biggest mistake we ever was to give up veils. This is wonderful. Any of those veils long enough to cover my ass and thighs?' Susan cocked her head and admired her reflection, knowing damned well her ass and thighs were still pretty good.
'If I had one, don't you think I would be wearing it?' We'd been complaining about our bodies since we were skinny little girls. We complained still when we were teenagers. We were so busy worrying about our bodies when we were young, I think we ended up with the sags and softness we feared. The power of visualization. I try not to think about moles with hair growing out of them, dark moos where teeth used to be.