Brand building through storytelling

Hats of my life

My mother died nearly 13 years ago, but for a fleeting second recently I could have sworn I saw her striding by—a gray-haired woman in a chiffon scarf, a billowing black raincoat and her signature touch, a broad-brimmed hat worn at just the right angle. It was my own reflection, proof that after a lifetime of doing things my way (which included going bare-headed in heat waves and blizzards), I’m not all that different from my mother. Like her, I’ve come to know the power and the pleasure of a good hat.

My mother’s closet was a joyous jumble of hats: trim fedoras, janty straw hats for gardening, floppy Garbo-esque numbers. There wasn’t a rain bonnet or a visor in the bunch—for her headgear was about self-expression. Her passion for it flowered in mid-life, when she divorced my father, a decorous British-born professor. That year she went to Russia and brought back a white fur pillbox the size of a sofa cushion.

She toured the markets of Mexico, where she found an extraordinary sun hat bedecked with trailing multicoloured ribbons. My father would have asked, with an eloquent clearing of the throat, if it wasn’t just a bit ostentatious. But my mother wore her Mexican hat to a publishing-industry party, where I encountered her among all my colleagues and rivals (she was a writer, so our paths often crossed this way). She waved to me through the fluttering ribbons. I cringed. And then, to my shame, I just had to whisper: “No woman over 20 can get away with that hat.” My mother smiled indulgently. After all, she’d reached the age when a woman who knows her style can get away with whatever she wants.

At the time I wasn’t much past 20 myself. I wore the uniform prescribed for career-minded women—pleated skirt, tailored jacket, silk blouse with kitty-cat bow at the neck. (My one nod to self-expression through clothes was a pair of strappy high-heeled sandals that had not gone entirely unnoticed by the guys at the office.) I had entered a world where clothing was camouflage—a world that had been barred to my mother and most women of her generation. While my success delighted her, I also sensed that I was not to compete with her on her own turf, social gatherings. At any cocktail party, she had the heartiest laugh, the boldest jewelry, the one and only hat.

When she died, just before my 40th birthday, she left her hats to various friends, at least one of whom still wears hers today. I never even thought of keeping one, although I did invest in a black straw hat for Mother’s memorial service. I made my choice with care and wore it with grave pleasure, knowing she would have approved.

Since then, I’ve filled a shelf with well-loved hats. I’m now on first-name terms with the saleswoman in a certain millinery department—supposedly the sign of a full-fledged shopping addiction. Most of the time, I’m just playing with the hats, exploring different angles while considering my options. I will never, like the late Queen Mother, have a hat for every outfit and a name (yes, really) for every hat. But I can dream.

I’ve come to think of middle age as the threshold of the Hat Years. It’s a question of poetic justice: by the time we have to give up our sexy stilletos in favour of shoes we can walk in, we have the confidence it takes to wear a hat. Trust me, a woman in a bold hat does not have to strut in order to be noticed. All she has to do is stand there. Her hat announces her. It extends her space. People may love it or loathe it, but what they think is not the point.

Hats are fun. They soften the face. And now doctors recommend them for sun protection. In short, hats are good for you. But then, some of us have known that for ages.

I’ve always regretted not buying a hauntingly gorgeous hat with a hefty pricetag. Click here for that story and what it taught me about women’s reluctance to spend money on themselves.

First published in Chatelaine, August 2002. Copyright by Rogers Media Publishing. Used by permission.

Posted by Rona

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