Black women, my grandmother and their hats
  • A congregation of women’s fancy hats
  • Postcards of black women with hats
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    Auction Finds

    Straw hats – a cool summer pleasure

    My girlfriend eyed the straw hats lying atop each other in an old cardboard file drawer. She lifted the one on top, a lovely hat made of light straw with a forest green velvet band tied around the head piece.

    This looks like the hat Whoopie Goldberg wore as Celie in “The Color Purple,” she said matter-of-factly. Who’d want to wear that?

    A friend said this Tess Cantin hat reminded her of one worn by the Whoopie Goldberg character Celie in the 1985 movie "The Color Purple."

    A lot of women, I told her, including me. Women with style who love wide-brimmed straw hats and black sunglasses to shade their faces from the blaring sun but also invite stares of the envious and admiring.

    In fact, many of us would be proud to wear either of the eight straw hats I couldn’t resist buying at auction. I had purchased about half of them a year ago and the rest a month or so ago.

    At the recent auction, I wasn’t even sure that I’d be lucky enough to walk away with them. The hats were among some box lots set up under a canopy outside the entrance to one of my favorite auction houses. Sometimes, when the inside rooms are overflowing, the auction house stacks other boxes on or under tables just outside the door.

    On this day, the auctioneer decided to group the file box of hats with about five other box lots, taking bids on all and then allowing the highest bidder to take one or everything. Several of us were bidding and a man bid the highest – about $8. I figured he wouldn’t be interested in hats, and he wasn’t.

    An array of women straw hats sold at auction.

    “The best is still here,” the auctioneer said. “Look at these hats, folks.” I tried to shush him, but he kept touting them even as he reopened the bidding. I won the next go-round with a $5 bid, and promptly and happily left with those wonderful straw hats. He was right; they were the best of the lots.

    What a buy! They were all lovely, and each had a tight weave that made them extra sturdy. Most were women hats with three-to-five-inch brims and made of natural straw. Three of the hats were men’s straw and soft fabric hats. Some of the women’s hats were worn, including one with faded flowers that were soiled.

    Combined with the hats I already had at home, I have more than a dozen. Most are in good condition, still have labels and appear to be vintage. Some have names I recognize – Saks Fifth Avenue and John Wanamaker (which had been a mainstay department store in Philadelphia for more than a century before it was purchased by May Department Stores Co. in 1995).

    Hat on front row left with flowers is a Christine Original, Park Ave., New York. The light colored hat on the front row far right is a Pantropic.

    Others were new to me: Tess Cantin, Norfolk, VA; Christine Original, Park Ave., New York; Pantropic. Among the men were Beaver Creek, J. Peterman, Dorfman Pacific.

    What is it about straw hats that draw us women to them? We take a trip to the Caribbean and we come back with a straw hat, even if we took one with us. The islands offer so many different types to choose from that we can’t resist.

    It is the style, no doubt. It’s also the coolness factor. Who doesn’t feel and look striking in a beautiful straw hat on a hot summer day. Rich or poor, the right hat puts us all at the same level.

    Clockwise from top left: Saks Fifth Avenue, John Wanamaker and a hat with no label.

    Curious about the hats whose makers were unfamiliar, I decided to see what they were worth:

    Pantropic panama hat. It’s made of leaves from the Toquilla palm, according to the tag. I found similar black ones selling online for $38 and $44.

    Christine Original was apparently from the 1950s. I found others by the same maker selling for up to $35 but no one was buying.

    Beaver Creek’s cowboy hats were selling new for up to $200.

    Dorfman Pacific’s mesh safari hat was going for $21 to $30.

    I’m not sure what I’ll do with the hats. For now, I’m just enjoying the look of them.

    Man’s hat at left is Beaver Creek. At right are Dorfman Pacific sitting atop a J. Peterman. The straw hat has no maker’s tag.

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