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The morning Joanna Holcomb traveled from Fairfax, Va., to La Plata to talk to members of the Charles County Antique Arts Association about her extensive hat collection was a doozy.
She forgot to take some medication and the maintenance light started blinking in her car, so before anything else went sideways, she grabbed a colorful, funky, festive hat in her collection and put it on.
“I like to have fun, and life is too short, ladies and gentlemen, to care about nitpicky things,” she said. “So, I’m wearing this ridiculous thing.”
The hat might be frivolous, but Holcomb’s knowledge of hats isn’t.
She started seriously collecting about 20 years ago, she said, and her collection spans more than 60 years of fashion.
“Hats have always been a part of my life,” Holcomb said, crediting her grandmothers. “Those two women influenced me from the cradle until today.”
Holcomb’s first hat was most likely the one she bought for her honeymoon.
When Holcomb married in 1964, hats were en vogue. “No proper bride would go off on their honeymoon without a suit and hat.”
Today, her collection includes the designs of boldface hat designers, like Mr. John, Hattie Carnegie, Henry Mangu, and those that have no tags but called out to her.
“Hats are like anything else we collect … we like something. You don’t have to worry so much about brand names; if you like it, you buy it,” she said.
Each hat tells a story, and when you first see a hat, it introduces itself to you, Holcomb said. The label inside will tell you the maker; depending on the size of the department store, it might bear the store’s name. If it is made in a union shop, it will be labeled.
“When you put a hat on your head, it opens windows,” Holcomb said. “You can tilt the brow and be mysterious, you can put on a whimsy and dance the night away, you can put on a black hat and go to the grave to mourn a friend.”
Holcomb talked of famous hat makers and designers. Mr. John was as famous for his hats as Christian Dior was for clothes, she said.
Mangu saw that hats were losing popularity in the 1970s and segued into making wigs. Carnegie, an Austrian immigrant, came to the United States in the 1909 and opened a hat shop with Rose Ross in New York City. Evelyn Varon, whose creations always included a trademark crystal bauble, was the first designer to offer one-size-fits-all hats. Designer Adolfo emigrated from Cuba and worked at Bergdorf Goodman before moving into women’s fashions. His works are showcased in the Smithsonian and Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Holcomb’s collection includes a hat made in 1947 by Tally Ho in Poland.
“This hat tells a story of perseverance and courage,” Holcomb said.
Made in a war-torn country, the hat was created by a designer who had to make do with the materials he had on hand.
“They had to scavenge for fabric, anything they could get their hands on,” Holcomb said. Hats would be made from recycled material before they were shipped to England, where a ribbon or bow would be put on tham.
“Historically speaking, this is the most important hat in my collection,” she said.
The one type of hat missing from her collection is the iconic pillbox made popular by Jacqueline Kennedy in the 1960s. Holcomb got rid of all of her pillboxes years ago and can’t find them anywhere in her travels.
“In all the vintage shops I’ve been in, I’ve never seen one,” she said. “In every wedding in the 60s, we all wore them on top of our heads and hoped that they didn’t fall off.”
Association member Mary Louise Webb remembers when hats were a staple of almost everyone’s wardrobe. Now, hats help cover a bad hair day.
“You can put on a hat and go,” said Webb, who collects buttons and joined the association years ago, finding it educational, relaxing and a good way to meet new people. “I wouldn’t trade this. We come, and [the meetings] let us learn together.”
“Different people collect different things,” she said. She donated a hat she found in her travels to Holcomb’s collection and delight.
Holcomb reminded the group that Jan. 15 is National Hat Day and encouraged them to take part.
“Remember: when you place a hat on your head, you can be whoever you want to be,” Holcomb said. “Put a hat on your head and run out the door and let it lead you on a new adventure.”