Hats, Hugs and a Sense of Style

CERTAINLY, since this is Easter Sunday, Henrietta Price will be wearing a hat.

But which hat? For several weeks now, the Hat Lady has been mulling over millinery possibilities.

She has hundreds to consider.

Her guinea-feather turban? Or her veiled velvet tam? Perhaps her plumed plum fedora or her bell-shaped flapper cloche or her golden horsehair halo that folds to fit inside her purse. Maybe the robin's-egg pillbox shimmering with silver beads and sequins. Or a simple navy bowler trimmed in white.

Henrietta owns Henrietta's Hats and Accessories on East Madison Street in Seattle. The pink boutique is lined with dozens of concoctions perched on glass shelves like petits fours. Henrietta has even more hats at home, nestled in round vintage boxes. She's collected them, one and two hats at a time, over a life.

The collection spans more than a century of style: romantic Victorian, Roaring '20s, glamorous '40s, button-down '50s. It includes Jacqueline Kennedy pillboxes, African-inspired turbans and wool Bretons like England's Queen Mother wears.

Fashionable, yes, but more.

Set proudly atop Henrietta's head, these creations of straw and feather weave through the fabric of her generation. They've graced weddings, funerals, graduations and the baptisms of Henrietta's six daughters. They marched with civil-rights leaders in Houston in the days when African Americans were barred from trying on hats in stores. Then, after President Kennedy was shot in 1963, Henrietta decided to leave the stress of the South to join two generations of family living in Seattle. Her hats migrated north with her, carefully packed in tissue.

Since then, Henrietta's hats have been a fixture around town - at theaters, art shows, readings, balls, fund-raisers, civic affairs, business meetings, playgrounds, nursing homes and, especially, in church. On Sundays, they join an entire community of millinery creations swaying above the pews.

Henrietta's clients include professors, politicians, doctors, pastors' wives and just plain folks. Her customers are black, white, yellow, brown, Southern, Northwestern, urban, surburban, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. They share a sense of style, and a sense of themselves.

Henrietta's older clients, "my mature young ladies," as she refers to them, have maintained their standard of elegance through beatnik slobbiness, bouffant hairdos and the more-recent trend of drip-dry anonymity.

They are of the age when ladies always cover their heads and never divulge how old.

Henrietta celebrated her 60th birthday last year . . . and the year before . . . and the year before that . . .. ("If you find an age you like," she advises, "stick with it!") With smooth caramel skin, bronze hair and carefully applied makeup, Henrietta is a great-grandmother who could be mistaken for the mother of junior-high-school students.

"I am in my fullness," she declares.

In an era when so many hide under Gore-Tex hoods, Henrietta has kept alive the notion that appearance says something about who you are, how you feel about yourself and how you should be treated.

Hats have a long history in African-American churches, says Dawn Mason, a Seattle businesswoman and youth advocate. (Her favorite hat is a blue cloche purchased at Henrietta's five years ago.)

"After slavery, as we went out in the world to make a life for ourselves as free people, church was a place we could own. It was the time after you had been working hard in farms, or factories, or someone else's house, that you could dress up. It was a day of pride. Something that nobody could take away. Something that was the core of who you are.

"Cleanliness was next to godliness. Even if you had one suit of clothes, that would be clean. Women had a hat. In a black church, no one is in jeans and T-shirts. It's not about showing off. This is pride. It's been that way for over 100 years. Henrietta has helped keep the tradition going."

HENRIETTA'S EASTER HAT, whichever she dons, will perfectly match her lime-green suit. And her mood.

No telling what that might be.

Since her husband, Freddie Price, died in December, Henrietta has been "going through," as she puts it. They were together 35 years; four months apart has seemed an eternity. These days, Henrietta tucks wads of Kleenex into her purse along with her usual lace-edged handkerchief.

"I'm trying to get my life back together," she says. "It seems he loved me so long ago! I'm trying not to feel sorry for myself, but sometimes I get an unconscious remembering. Breakfast is not the same. The elegance of him always giving me breakfast and coffee in bed! I am trying to keep the early morning special. God is good, giving me that man."

Take, for example, that lime-green suit. Easter will be the first time Henrietta wears it. Freddie Price bought it for his wife when they celebrated their anniversary in Reno last October. He would often do things like that. He was a gentleman, more than a dozen years her senior. He called her "Baby." Henrietta called him "Daddy" most of the time and "Mr. Price" when she was mad at him, though they never let the sun set without kissing and making up. They were an affectionate, old-fashioned couple.

Oh, Baby, he'd say when they'd browse in department stores. Try that on. That'd look nice on you, Baby! The bodice of the lime-green suit was embroidered with glass bugle beads that cascaded toward a fitted waist and sleek skirt. Lime is not a color Henrietta would ordinarily choose for herself, but her husband insisted. "He liked how it looked on me," she says. "We'd always browse."

When Henrietta was 12, she could not browse. "They didn't let black people go in the hat store and try on hats. It was just a way of life. You could pick the color you desire, but you couldn't try it on to see if it was totally to your liking. You just had to use your imagination of what you wanted."

For Easter that year, Henrietta planned to wear a pink dress with ruffly petticoats and white patent-leather Stride Rites. When her mother brought home a pink straw hat from the store, Henrietta recalls, "I put it on and didn't like it." So she fiddled with the hat in her room every night. She cut off the pesky strings and encircled the brim with yellow-and-white daisies.

"I changed that hat to make it me," Henrietta says. "I'll never forget when I came out that morning ready for church on Easter. Ta DA! I thought I was very attractive. I looked beautiful."

At the True Light Baptist Church in Houston, such millinery transformations were customary. To get the exact style and fit they wanted, the pastor's wife and other church ladies sewed their own outfits and always made matching hats. They wouldn't let segregation rules define who they were or what they wore. "God had given them the gift to coordinate things together," Henrietta says.

She quotes one of her favorite passages in her large-print Bible: "Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world."(I John 4:4)

"It's saying you've got to make sure you feel good and know that your spirit is right, treating people right, doing right things. Then it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks or does."

Young Henrietta inherited an eye for style. Her mother was a beautician who ran her own salon. Her father was a longshoreman who owned a dry-cleaning store and served as a church deacon. He always checked, Where's your gloves, Henrietta? before they left the house. "It was important for him that I was a lady. As the eldest, I had a standard to uphold."

Aunt Bernice and Aunt Lucy and Aunt Ruth gave walking lessons and taught the proper way to set a table and cross your legs (at the ankle, not the knee). Always wear brand-name underwear, Henrietta, Aunt Bernice instructed. Quality. The best. You deserve to have fine things next to your skin. You should dress to please you.

Henrietta's sixth-grade teacher noticed her passion for dressing. Henrietta, she told her, don't just wear hats to look beautiful. I want you to get something IN your head. I want you to acquire the knowledge to MAKE the hats.

Henrietta never forgot her teacher's advice. After she graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, she dipped and dabbed in millinery even while working as an elevator operator and waitress at the Houston city jail, as an electrician at Boeing, as a nurse at Providence, Group Health and Planned Parenthood, and as an employment counselor in the correction system.

Her first husband was a minister who died young, so Henrietta raised six daughters with her mother's help. Late at night, when the children were asleep, she trimmed and blocked hats on the kitchen table. After she married Freddie Price, Henrietta studied millinery at Seattle Community College under legendary hat maker John Eaton. She also was tutored by the dean of Seattle's milliners, Ethel Young. Back then, sashaying down Fifth Avenue swinging a six-sided Ethel Young hat box was equivalent in prestige to, say, pulling up to valet parking in a Land Rover now. Before Eaton and Young died, they each bequeathed some of their balsa-wood hat blocks to Henrietta, who still uses them.

In 1984, Henrietta opened her Madison Valley boutique with financial help from her mother and daughters. The hats are the moderate-to-better labels: Jack McConnell, Mr. John, Whittall & Son, Halston. Henrietta also custom designs for special occasions.

"Yes! Yes! YES!" Henrietta says, her voice rising like steam. "I love the simply elegant! I love bringing back the '20s and '30s and '40s and '50s when women were just radiant! I love bringing out the beauty!"

HENRIETTA'S HAT BOUTIQUE is hushed and pink, the decor more feminine than a Victorian B & B. It takes a few moments to adjust to this world of flowers, sequins, feathers and bows. Soon after, Henrietta is likely to give you a hug.

She hugs everybody: the residents at Bailey-Boushay hospice, where she serves on the advisory board; the students at Leschi Elementary School, where she's a crossing guard; the well-dressed ladies at churches around town; her customers. Even first-time visitors wind up telling her about their great-aunts, their childhoods, their terminally ill friends, and then they, too, leave with a hug.

Henrietta hugs clients who are about to wed. ("Look at him two or three times before you decide," she advises, "because once you marry, you can't return him!") She hugs women losing hair to cancer. (She does private fittings, no extra charge, to show chemotherapy clients how to wear turbans, hats and scarves they already own.) She hugs regulars who drop by, for a hat or a hug, because they're having a good or bad day. ("In my parents' and grandparents' time," Henrietta says, "when their spirits were down, they'd always go out and buy a hat!")

Hats always have been symbolic. Throughout history and across cultures, headgear has denoted status: crowns for European royalty; feathered headdresses for Native American tribal chiefs; even the Dalai Lama's ceremonial garb includes a towering topper, though he's more familiar for his shaved pate.

Over the past century, hats have signaled chastity (Puritan bonnets); sex (Marilyn Monroe's rakish cocktail saucers); class (Audrey Hepburn's wide-brimmed picture hats); creativity (Van Gogh's floppy berets); iconoclasm (crocheted wool rapper caps).

For Henrietta, hats are about taking charge.

"Look at the Queen Mother. She is in CONTROL: This is my dress code. This is how you will see me," Henrietta says. (She frequently mentions the Queen Mother in casual conversation.) "If she ever came out without the hat, those gloves and that bag, you'd say, something's wrong: Queen Mother's sick!"

To appreciate what Henrietta means by control, peek into her '95 navy blue Lincoln Town Car.

There are 3-inch black-patent pumps, silver and gold loafers, baby-blue sweat pants, a velvet beret, a black leather skull cap with a cushioned halo brim, a picture hat in the trunk for spur-of-the-moment luncheons. "I'm always appropriate for every occasion," Henrietta declares. "Never underdressed or overdressed."

One afternoon, when her Town Car was in the shop for service, I drove Henrietta from Leschi Elementary School to the Lincoln dealership near Lake Union.

Henrietta's children and several grandchildren attended Leschi. She became a playground volunteer and then a crossing guard there because she believes every human interaction makes a difference, and if you want to change your community, you need to start with young minds.

"Children know if you love them. They know if you care."

Henrietta cares enough to apply Mocha-Glo foundation and two shades of lipstick, Red Rapture and Merlot, before greeting children at the chilly intersection of 31st and East Yesler. In her impeccable makeup, blue uniform and blue cap with polished patent-leather bill, she is a figure of determined gentility. Her gloves are blaze-orange, and, instead of a purse, she carries a red flag that says: STOP.

"It's COLD!" she hugs a skinny girl in a blue parka. "You need something on your head. Where's your HAT?"

"Excuse me!" she hugs a little boy with sagging pants. "Where's your belt?"

"I'm the grandmother in CONTROL on that corner," she says after hugging, scolding and accounting for every child she'd shepherded that morning.

Then we head for the car dealership. In the 10 minutes it takes to drive there, Henrietta retouches her makeup, throws a better-quality gabardine trench coat over her crossing-guard uniform, changes out of black sneakers into patent-leather heels, and exchanges her billed cap for a black-leather skull with stuffed sausage brim. On most anyone else, the hat would look like a chubby flying saucer. On Henrietta, it is, in her words, "simply elegant."

Transformed, Henrietta strides into the repair shop. The uniformed mechanic behind the counter is about to launch into the usual queries, but she beats him to it:

"What is MY name?" she demands. (People never forget people who wear hats.)

The mechanic stammers and straightens his slouch. "Henrietta Price!"

"And what is my license plate?" (Notice who is in control here.)


THE STYLE OF HEADWEAR favored by the Queen Mother hasn't been common in Seattle since the '50s and '60s, when there were a half-dozen millinery shops clustered around the late Frederick & Nelson. Since then, the damp Northwest has relied mostly on baseball caps and utilitarian rain hoods to cover its pedestrian personality.

Perhaps you are hoping, or dreading, that hats will come back. For Henrietta Price, they never left.

Henrietta can find the perfect hat for any event: a gubernatorial ball, bar or bat mitzvah, theater opening, wedding, christening, funeral. She can also outfit you for every day and Sundays.

First, Henrietta sizes up your facial features, body type, personality and lifestyle - in my case, leggings and no-iron fleece.

"Plain Jane," she said. "Quiet. Subtle. Now we're going to enhance, we're going to bring OUT that beauty."

She set an orange straw fedora at a rakish angle atop my straight hair. She pointed to the mirror. "Elegant! Confident! THIS is a totally different person."

If you don't regularly wear fashion hats, it's startling to see how a handful of felt and feather transforms. I couldn't claim elegant, but, maybe, slightly mysterious. Like a glamorous 1940s private detective. I imagined smoking (using a silver cigarette holder, of course!) in a paneled office with a frosted glass door, though my reality is computer cubicle and smoke-induced nausea.

Then I tried a brocade picture hat with a brim that swept skyward. ("Opens you up," Henrietta said. "Makes you approachable for conversation.")

A taupe riding hat with a gold piping. (Too Kentucky Derby).

A pale pink pillbox encircled by silk crepe and frothy tulle. (Where to wear it? "Anywhere!" Henrietta proclaimed. Lunch! Tea! Garden party! On assignment!)

Don't worry if you travel a lot, she said, sharing a tip from the days when ladies rode trains. Pin the hat to the seat in front of you with a hat pin, then take a nap. Upon arrival, both hat and I would be fresh as a daisy. "You got ON looking like you fell out of a magazine," she said. "You're going to get OFF the same way. Ta DA!"

I liked a flapper-style cloche with a creamy ruffled blossom that dipped saucily over my left cheek, but owned nothing to wear with it. ("A fabulous hat always gives you the reason to go out and buy something to go with it.")

I flirted with a straw mad hatter that looked like an upside-down flower pot. It was trimmed with dusky pink cotton, sweetheart roses and forget-me-nots. The flared crown appeared whimsically crushed, as if the wearer recently ducked through Alice's Looking Glass.

"Now look at her," Henrietta said, pointing to me, in the mirror. "What is she thinking?"

Gadzooks! One hundred dollars for a hat? Twice what I'd pay for something practical, like mud boots. Also, I wondered if the larger styles might be off-putting because they dominated air space.

"Who are you afraid of putting off?" Henrietta asked. "Who are you trying to dress for? Is this about you? Or about them? What happened to personality? To individuality?"

It was hard sell, yes, but Henrietta wasn't exactly selling hats. She was talking about figuring out who you are and what you want and having no fear of expressing it. "You have to make a statement," she said. "You have to stand for what you believe in. If you don't stand for what you believe in, you'll waver. I believe in hats."

Viewed this way, a hat would be cheaper than therapy and, as a bonus, chic.

In the days when everyone wore hats, people had a better understanding of different parts of their personalities, says Wayne Wichern, a haute-couture milliner in Ballard. "They were their own theater. You dressed one way, knowingly, to achieve a certain situation . . .. You could wear a hat that closed you off from the world. Or a certain hat that demanded people say something, good or bad. People who wear a lot of hats are familiar with this. It's dealing with the most psychological part of who we are. The head. Where the brain fits.

"Now, because we don't wear headgear, we're trying to sort out who we are. How do we express our moods? How do we understand each other, quickly, in a crowd? People can wear practically anything these days. There's no social restriction. It's egalitarian, but it's also confusing."

WITH HER HUSBAND GONE, Henrietta still has the company of six grown children, 30 or so grandchildren, 10 godsons, six goddaughters and countless friends. She has the hats that cap her best memories.

There's the dainty silver-lame skullcap with bows that fan like ribbon candy. Henrietta designed it to wear with sequined gowns for formal events such as gubernatorial balls.

The African Queen turban of faux leopard skin Henrietta wore for ethnic-cultural events and Norm Rice's first mayoral inauguration.

The wide-brimmed picture hat she once wore, with lace gloves and pink-and-gray snakeskin heels, to ride on the hood of her "HAT LADY" Town Car during the Seafair parade.

The white horsehair hat, poofy like a cloud, she often wore for church.

And, of course, the filmy Victorian picture hat Henrietta wore to renew her vows with Freddie Price, a dozen or so years after they were married. The satin hat was appliqueed with ivory lace to match her old-fashioned rose-and-ivory wedding dress. She carried a lace fan and a bouquet of ribbon and tuberoses. The bridegroom wore a white tuxedo with a rose bow tie and cummerbund. They had more than 16 attendants of honor and flower girls, too. Henrietta's daughters gave her away. Goodwill Baptist Church was packed.

"It was like I was 19!" Henrietta giggles. "That was the kind of love affair we had. There were never too many times to reaffirm my commitment with him."

Price's funeral was at the same church, which was packed again, though Henrietta can't remember much of the service. She wore a dark-blue felt pillbox, Jack McConnell label, that she'd trimmed with a velvet bow edged with tiny rhinestones. She'd fixed the bow so it sat sideways, and then attached a bit of netting sprinkled with chantilly dots.

"I didn't want to wear a mourning veil like Jackie Kennedy," she says. "I don't want to cut myself off from people like that."

The hat holds much sorrow now. Henrietta keeps it on her bureau, but won't wear it again for a while.

In the meantime, she goes on with life, drawing on the strength and wisdom of a lady in her fullness.

She quotes Scripture: "I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me."(Phillipians 4:13)

Today she will wear the lime-green suit for the first time. Lime green is hard to match, but Henrietta has a gift for coordinating things and she will do it for her late husband. If she is feeling quiet, she'll tone the suit down with a navy-blue straw kettle hat or something dusty rose. If her spirits are up, then an antique Jack McConnell coolie hat strewn with an explosion of daffodils, pansies, daisies and roses.

Henrietta will rise early this Easter morning and drink coffee as though Freddie Price were still there. After breakfast, she'll make her face up and pray to keep herself together in church when the presence of God and her husband come within her. Then she'll put on the lime-green suit and remember her husband in a loving, special way. She'll thank God for letting him be with her, in spirit, in the lime-green suit, the last real outfit he bought and liked so well on her.

Finally, just before leaving the house, Henrietta will go into the guest bathroom with her hat and stand before the big mirror over the double sink. She'll set the hat on her head with both hands, pat the crown with her left palm, smooth the brim with her ring fingers. She'll turn her head this way and that, smiling at her reflection on each side.

"I want to make sure it's just right. The suit, the hat . . . I'm matching something he loved with something I love. We are still one. One in the Father. One with me and my husband. Everything together. I believe in the resurrection. I believe in marriage. I believe in love."

Then Henrietta will pick up her gloves and purse and go to church, her hat floating between heaven and her head.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for the magazine.