Having arrived in New Orleans only 53 years ago come October, I was never part of the rituals of growing up in the city. At 23, I had missed meeting my mama under the Holmes clock on Canal Street, being thrilled by the annual appearance of Mr. Bingle and relishing MacKenzie’s king cakes, which in my newcomer view didn’t merit the label of “cake” at all.
But having come to town to work for the city’s afternoon newspaper, I had to learn about these customs quickly, and I did, mostly with the help of the native who became my husband. Then, with the birth of our son, I began to participate in many of them regularly. Our child had to have a ladder and costume for Carnival parades, he had to have a doll fashioned in the likeness of the little snowman, he greedily ate the cake his father thought vastly superior to the “filled” versions that came later.
But I never did meet him or his sister under the clock, because they grew up in the suburban shopping center era.
I got to thinking about that this morning when I saw the feature in the paper about D.H. Holmes and his arrival in New Orleans about the same time The Times Picayune was born in 1837. Two years later, he opened his store on Canal Street and a tradition began. But what really interested me was the caption under one of the pictures of the inside of his business, with the notation that gloves were de rigueur for lady shoppers. Yes, I remember that, and, more important, also recall when hats were de rigueur, too.
Visiting the Women’s Section of the paper in the late ‘50s, a socialite shared this story: She had made a hasty trip to a Canal Street “better dress” department after a morning of carpooling, and had been frostily received by the sales clerks who prowled the premises. She said she went back home, spruced up and put on a hat and gloves, and got the VIP treatment upon her return.
As children and teenagers, my sisters and I always had two new hats per year, one for summer and one for winter, and we wore them to church and on shopping excursions to the “big town” about an hour away from our home. My mother and grandmother never went to either place without theirs.
Being tall, Mother sometimes wore what they called “picture” hats, with shallow crowns and wide brims. My sister’s own favorite was her little navy blue hard-crowned number, with a red felt ball bobbing atop what looked like a blue pipe-cleaner rising from the grosgrain band around the crown. I remember my brown wool hat that you wore tilted over one eye like a soft soldier’s cap. It had hobnails along the band, and a little red feather tucked to one side.
I remember my sexy ice-blue velvet hat with the black veil; by that time, smaller hats that perched on top of the head were fashionable. I was 16 and quite the stunner — at least in my own mind. Another of the accessories that was memorable was the fuzzy white wool cloche worn to a homecoming football game in high school, but pleasure in that was hard to feel when your new high heels were killing you.
My other headgear must have been forgettable, and when I went to work after college in 1957, I don’t think I ever bought a hat.
Ladies’ hats were getting rarer as a compulsory accessory in the ‘60s, and now that I think about it, the fashion for teased hair was undoubtedly part of the reason. Women began to wear their hair high, high, higher, and to preserve this look some wrapped toilet paper ‘round their tresses when they retired for the night.
Who’d spend their time and money at the beauty parlor achieving this “do” only to have it crushed by a hat? Get “hat hair” ? Really! The hat was out — except for the British royals and Jackie Kennedy, whose pillboxes persisted as long as she was first lady.
I don’t remember when men forsook their fedoras; I wasn’t paying attention. My husband has never worn one since I’ve known him. And neither did he adopt the ubiquitous baseball cap.
Thank heaven for small fashion favors.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living Section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.