Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Too bad chapeaus are now old hat

A video at the Historical Museum, "Bellefonte 1940," shows scenes of people entering and leaving different churches in town on a single Sunday morning. All the women and girls are wearing hats.

Times change. Scanning the packed pews of well-dressed worshippers at St. John's recently, I saw no hats at all.

It has been some years since the relaxation of the rule that women must cover their heads in church, but I can remember how strictly the nuns at our school observed it. In a pinch, I would have to bobby-pin a crumpled tissue to the top of my head.

Some authorities date the decline of hats to the lowering of automobile roofs, others to the beehive hairdo -- neither of which could accommodate a hat of any size. The informality of modern life is probably another factor, but whatever the cause, hats largely disappeared from the fashion scene by the end of the '60s.

A census report at the library from 1880 lists 10 milliners in the borough, when the population was just more than 3,000. Hatmaking was a respected business in this town.

Locals may recall Nelle Flack, who sold hats from the Katz Clothing Store on South Allegheny Street or Peg Sciabica, who ran a hat shop out of her home on East High Street.

When I helped set up a hat show at the Bellefonte Museum two summers ago, I thought of the women in town who were defined by their hats. Jean McGarvey, for instance, wore hats that had a certain defiant air, like Jean herself, from exclusive shops such as Mary Sachs in Harrisburg. Mrs. Covey wore flowered hats in a more romantic tradition. I never knew the lady from Logan Street who owned the blue cartwheel, but she had great style.

The specialty stores are gone, but FaithCentre Thrift Store has a few vintage hats on display. And the Plaza Centre has many more.

Victorian Rose has handmade Victorian hats from a company in California that has been making them for three generations. They look like confections, deliciously trimmed with feathers, ribbons and lace.

Carol Walker, owner of Victorian Rose, thinks hats are coming back. Recently, a bride sent out wedding invitations requesting that all female guests wear hats.

And there are now seven groups of the Red Hat Society in Bellefonte alone.

If the revolution arrives, I am ready. After selling more than 50 hats at my yard sale last summer and donating bags full to the thrift store, I still have about a 100 left.