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Hat statement

On top of it all: the perfect chapeau.

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Published 5/5/1999

The woman is old, diminutive, preoccupied. She takes every soup can from the shelf, holds it in her hand, reads the label. To buy or not to buy? Clam chowder or cream of mushroom? Tomato or chicken noodle?

The tension is unbearable. She pushes the cart slowly, oblivious to the rustle of the store, to the comforting sounds of the traffic outside. A few feet away, I stare at her with impolite intensity, fascinated by her outfit.

She’s wearing a velvet-trimmed coat which has seen better days – dark brown with a hint of cream, black satin gloves, pumps and a bold, sparkling white bridal hat complete with veil and feather.

What would agent J Peterman have to say about her? How would he describe the worn-out vintage look, the tiredness of her gestures, her moth-eaten voice?

I think about my grandmother. I remember trying on her lovely clothes, Chinese silks and beaded lace, her incredible collection of hats which no one but her would wear on the street in broad daylight.

Somehow, she got away with it, as she did with everything else, like that time when she planned to elope with an actor, at 17, and decided against it at the last moment. It was a rational decision, she said. She had just found out that the director of the bank where she held the menial position of an intern was not married. He was 27, had a Ph.D. in business, was focused, energetic and ugly. That’s all she needed to know.

She pinned her hair up and chose the loudest, most outrageous piece of her collection: A rabbit fur-felt top hat with ostrich plumes and peacock feathers accented by tiny pearls. She put on her no-nonsense choker, her smoky-gray chiffon blouse with beaded embroidery on the cuffs, her charmante full cotton skirt, and her side-button black leather gloves. Suede Andre Perugia sandals. She knew how to dazzle.

"It wasn’t easy," she would say at the end of the story, her eyes round with anger. "It took me three days to marry him!"

I look around. Every trip to the grocery store is somewhat depressing: Frozen dinners, Ultra Slim Fast, gutted fish.

I take the long way home, through the heart of the campus. I amuse myself drawing imaginary hats to match the faces I encounter.

The lap of luxury. Sumptuous and elusive summer hats with mushroom-shaped crowns and perforated brims; sawdust brocade turbans with tribal markings; Yves Saint Laurent black and white cubist hats. Antique lace over floral patterns; turquoise and cyclamen; mauve and yellow. Sickeningly bold. Atrociously personal. Shoe-shaped hats. Shipwrecks. Fashion suicides. Nobody gives a damn, anymore.

I remember Fashion U.K.’s latest statement: Bar codes sprayed on the backs of the male models’ heads. The ultimate price.

I find myself in front of the library. Should I go in? Why not? It’s not like I have anything better to do on this disturbing, wasted afternoon.

"Byron dashed off poems while he was dressing, or between tea and dinner," I read in a book about "the silver fork school." The silver fork, not the silver spoon: They were books by or for young ladies educated more "to a view to accomplishments than housekeeping utensils." Pages and pages dedicated to afternoon tea rituals and clothing. Bashful glances and impudent love-letter exchanges. The scarlet sins of the libertines.

Everybody wore hats in those days. Kept the milliners happy.

"Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter. Sermons and soda water the day after."

The poets are dead! Long live the poets! The fabric of our summer days, stretches softly, just ahead of a myth. It’s time to leave the library.

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