Tipping My Hat To Ancestral Tradition

Cowgirl Penny Mathews

“You have to suffer to be stylish,” my Irish great-grandmother used to declare in her County Clare-born brogue – before the days of more practical yet smart looking shoe options.

I’ve been known to slip into a wider toe box when my feet rebel from the heels they’ve endured while pounding the city’s terra firma.

Hats, however: they are the harmless statement pieces of bygone eras, often resurrected on the style pages with no threat to our noggins, except for an odd flattened follicle. Hats are always of the moment and I possess my share, thanks to the legacy of the women in my family who proudly designed and wore them.

My great grandmother dressed her head in warmth while taking advantage of basking in a mere sliver of winter’s sun. Two great aunts attended Pratt Institute for Millinery, and I have memories of holidays spent admiring their haute creations as they paraded through our door. If only fascinators were as popular in the U.S., the women of our family surely would have been donning them, perhaps even at Christmas dinner.

Wool, felt, mink, straw, oilskin of the tam, fedora, cloche, and cowboy variety now sit perched on a rack in my home awaiting their turn for a seasonally appropriate urban excursion, and it’s with remorse that I often orphan the too large or too rigid lid when packing for a flight. It was on a minus five degree February night at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden that I dreamt of my grandmother while wearing her packable soft mink skull cap, very Brooklyn chic for her day, a warm cranial embrace as I endured a night of intermittent sleep on a queen-size ice bed with a deer skin overlay. My first day on the job, fresh out of University, I was coined Annie Hall by the department’s boss on that cold January morning. Dermatologists have applauded me for my summer ritual of safeguarding my fair skin under the awning of wide-brimmed hats.

But like any accessory, please, for goodness’ sake, know what you can pull off. Clearly that advice was lost under the straw fedoras that landed on the heads of those who, perhaps, should have chosen another trend to follow one summer. It was on a trip to the East End of Long Island, New York, that the oversized windows of the Hampton Jitney allowed me that view; a sea of fedora donned men seated at sidewalk cafés as my coach idled through each town. Granted, men don’t have it easy when it comes to choice of topper, a slippery slope of cool versus wrong, and I applaud them for trying. Come to think of it, I do recall my grandfathers looking quite dapper when sporting a properly chosen wool fedora, while a certain elementary school male prankster was relegated to the corner of his classroom to wear a dunce cap. Never mind about that.

So, go ahead and put a feather in your cap for venturing out the door with an adornment that makes a fitting statement and protects your think tank as you walk a bit taller. My hats go off to my familial fashion pioneers and today’s designers who continue to produce sharp options for casual everyday crown confection and, of course, for horsing around.