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Of Hats, Boyfriends and other Feminine Frivolities

A story of hats in Sydney in 1940-50s

Hats! The very word lifts my spirits as I recall the pleasure of hats. I didn't always have such a light hearted view of hats. At two years old, wearing a hat was a serious business. Nothing would persuade me to remove my sunbonnet, even when indoors on a wet afternoon. My inherent stubbornness showed itself very early.

Growing up, for me, was always linked with dressing up and dressing up demanded adding a hat. Childhood birthday parties always included party hats. Sometimes we'd make our own with crepe paper, glue, glitter and lots of ingenuity. But the best sort of fun with hats came when shopping with Mother. In the '40's and '50's and even well into the '60's, hats were de rigeur for the fashionable woman. Mother, short on finance but long on artistic talent, in the late '40's and early '50's, became an habitué of a basement city store called JUNE MILLINERY. To enter JUNE MILLINERY was to enter a cavern of delights, an Ali Barber's cave of colour and light. Here could be found every sort of hat block, soft felt hat bodies ready to be steamed into shape, rolls and rolls of straw and nylon crinoline, ribbons, artificial fruit and flowers, bolts of veiling, sequins, spangles and hatpins: the lot! It was entrancing!

Mother, creative to her core, could make the most wonderful hats. For herself, elegant straw confections trimmed with huge roses; sculptured velvet creations with arching bird feathers, or floppy berets for less formal occasions. For my sister and me, more restrained straw hats with suitable ribbons and flowers made us feel the centre of attention when dressed in our best for Sunday School. On the big day of confirmation, which for us happened in the early '50's when the fashion for girls extended to very full-skirted feminine dresses and wide picture hats, Mother made us dresses in pink and blue organdie with matching hats so wide they were like straw umbrellas. We felt very special, though we probably looked like walking pastel mushrooms as we moved down the aisle in the church.

But my favourite hat of all in that very hat conscious era was the stunning fine black straw picture hat that the young Queen Elizabeth II wore on the day she left Sydney after her first visit in 1954, shortly after her coronation. She wore a close fitting white lace dress and white T-bar high heeled sandals [not sensible shoes]. She carried a tightly furled slim umbrella and a handbag [of course!] and that amazing hat! I sometimes wonder what happened to her taste in hats after that as her later chapeaux, excluding of course the magnificent coronation crown and the dazzling tiaras, are not in the same class.

When the Queen learnt her father, King George VI, had died in February 1952, I had just begun at Hornsby Girls' High School and was proudly wearing the school regulation straw panama hat. It didn't have much personality at first, but by the end of my last year, it had matured almost as much as I had and was floppy and curvy, just like me. I was fond of it. Unlike myself, who just plopped the hat on my head haphazardly as I hurried out the door each morning on my way to school, my sister was much more aware of her self presentation. She took time wetting her hair with a comb, fingering it carefully into place, and gently settling her panama on top of her head to ensure the best effect. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that she attracted so many boys!

For me, different boyfriends are associated in my mind with different hats. When I was 12 I was allowed to go on my first date with the son of family friends. I was then the proud owner of a royal blue corduroy beanie with a long black silk tassel which oscillated easily each time I moved my head. Mother had thoughtfully rolled my normally unbending straight hair into a mass of bouncing curls to set the beanie off to best advantage. I felt like a princess. Trouble is, I can't remember the boy's name! Then there was the first boy on whom I had a "crush". We went to the same church evening fellowship and walked home together afterwards. Being so aware of him, I took particular care to wear a hat that would not dislodge easily in any moment of youthful passion that might come my way. So Mother, discreet as always, devised a white straw crescent shaped band encrusted with small flowers that could be pinned in place and would not fall off unless I were turned upside down. Fortunately, youthful passion did not go that far!

But the one who was to be my first real love, a man of uncommonly good looks, expressive personality and active involvement in many pursuits, required a different approach to the wearing of hats. He owned a motor scooter and if I were to ride with him, I had to wear a large white leather helmet which did nothing for my appearance beyond disguising me completely. But vanity was thrown to the winds in the interests of love. Holding tightly onto him for hours at a time was worth the sacrifice!

By my early twenties, and now earning my own income, I frequently entertained myself when in department stores by trying on hats, the more extravagant the better. In the late '50's I bought one that resembled an inverted flower pot and felt very elegant when wearing it. A photo taken in 1959 as I walked down Market Street with my new fiancé shows a very self-assured young woman wearing this remarkable hat. But now, the photo only makes me giggle and wonder how I could have worn it at all!

Came my wedding day in 1961 and dear Mother produced a cream silk circlet adorned with a cream silk rose to hold in place the finger-tip length veil to complement the cream silk and lace gown. For herself in oyster grey silk and my attendants in green silk, she made colour-toned silk bands to hold in place wispy face veils, so a la mode for the times.

After that, fashions changed radically. By the late '60's hats for every occasion had become a thing of the past. Now the only hats I possessed were bush hats, beach hats and gardening hats. But my younger son has taken up my love of hats, in fact my love of bright and rather eccentric clothes. He is an entertainer, among other things, and makes himself and his belly-dancing partner all manner of hats. My favourite was a Carmen Miranda number, a platter of fruit balanced carefully on his head as he minced through the Rocks Area on two metre high stilts, dressed in a jewelled bra-top and flowing chiffon skirt in the pre-Mardi Gras "Frocks on the Rocks" celebration. Truly, he is a son that this hat loving mother can be proud of!

Owner of originalBev Cameron
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