Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Art of Hattitude

“I have a hat. It is graceful and feminine and gives me a certain dignity, as if I were attending a state funeral or something. Someday I may get up enough courage to wear it, instead of carrying it.”

—Erma Bombeck

“Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.”
— Henry David Thoreau

Miss O’ wearing the first hat she purchased from 
millinery magic person Wendy Carrington, 
Sugar Loaf Craft Fair, Manassas, Virginia, ca. 1995
(photo by Andrew Quinn, 12/1/12)

Mourning Wear

The other morning, Miss O’s publishing colleague (and eBook creator) Magda, a designer, artist, and aspiring hat-maker, asked where I got the hat you see pictured, and I told her (see caption). As we chatted at my desk, I also told her that when I moved to New York, one of the first things I did was find Wendy Carrington’s shop, Hattitude, located on Reade Street in Tribeca. Wendy had to close the shop two years after 9-11 (“I don’t want to think about why we lost 90% of our business,” she told me when I visited the shop in the fall of 2003 as she was preparing to close), and so they were moving over to the Dumbo section of Brooklyn (DUMBO stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” and it’s really a faux “section” of the city, very trendy). I found her again when I searched online a couple of years later, intending to visit her shop in its new location, but shortly after that, around 2006 or ’07, her website was no longer up. I have searched periodically, wondering what happened to her and her marvelous hats. Possibly she’d retired, but she couldn’t have been more than 60 by then, if that. Her skin, as I remember, was luminous.

“Oh, why don’t I Google her again?” I said to Magda. And this is what I found.


CARRINGTON--Wendy. Remembered by Daisy, Bob and Pat, owner of Hattitude in Tribeca. Memorial today at 6pm, 1157 Lexington Ave.

Published in The New York Times on February 25, 2010

“Oh my god,” I said.  I pointed to the screen. That was it. All I could locate was this paid notice from 2010. Beyond that, I couldn’t find another thing about Wendy except a few eBay sales of her hats, a few images of hats here and there, and she deserves so much more than that. And here it is, as best as I can offer.

In Memoriam: Wendy Carrington

Miss O’s winter hat collection by Wendy Carrington of Hattitude, NYC
(Photo by Miss O')

The first Wendy hat I bought, technically, was also at a Sugar Loaf Craft Fair the year before the top pictured one, but it was sold to me by two 20-something super-enthusiastic employees, and lovely though the hat is (it’s the purple velvet one; the gold ribbon band is a gift from Luxor Tavella of Paracelsco in SoHo—a story for another time), it’s not really me, and Wendy herself, had she been able to be there, would never have sold it to me. (What makes a hat "you" and "not you" is often subtle.) Wendy, as I learned the following year, would snatch right off your head the hat you were trying on if she saw that it didn’t suit you. “No,” she would explain in her clipped but rich English accent, reminiscent in tone to Vanessa Redgrave’s but more aggressive—in fact, she looked like a 5’1” version of that great actress—declaring, “You can’t have that one—it's all wrong for you.” She would then toss it back onto the table, search furtively, and in a matter of seconds pull another one off the rack and place it, firmly and finally, on your head. “This one,” she would say. And you would turn to look in the handy hanging mirror, and (if you really looked and took in what you saw) you might feel then the sting of tears in your eyes: Hattitude gratitude.

Wendy’s gift—even beyond her ability to choose three fabrics of varying textures and patterns and weaves to combine into hats of wide brims, medium brims, and cloches, with high crowns and low with a craftsmanship touched of God (all complemented with a scarf to tie around the crown, chosen from a box, right there in the moment)—was the certainty with which she assessed your best fit, best style, and true hat self all in one moment of meeting. She was open to colors—we all know the coats we own—but also pushy in terms of rightness. “That red really isn’t your best color,” I heard her tell a customer. “Try this,” and the “this” was more orange. The woman insisted that she preferred red, but had to admit that, in accord with both Wendy and the mirror, the orangier hat really looked more delicious on her. I watched this process many times over many craft fairs. It was like watching a magician.

And once the right hat was found, then would come your nervousness: You would have to live up to the expectations of that hat, you see. You might have to buy a new coat. Rethink your scarves. Reconsider in what direction your wardrobe—nay, your life—was going. The choice of a hat is perhaps one of a human being’s most difficult decisions, fraught with greater anxieties than we might first imagine. “It’s just a hat,” we tell ourselves, standing in the department store or in the sporting goods shop. Then after ten or fifteen minutes of total indecisiveness and increasingly static-attracting locks, we realize—now on the verge of rage—that we’ll have to find a hat another day. “But…it’s cold outside, goddammit, and I need a fucking hat now,” we scream inside our own heads (one hopes only there), and we return again to the stacks and hooks of headwear. Often we choose wrongly. It’s worn once or twice, this wrong hat, and lost onto the closet floor for years after, or discarded after we finally find one that will do for us, if not exactly enhance us.

Hat as Personality Indicator

A person’s choice of hat is more than telling: It’s defining, especially as seen in winter in New York City on the streets and subways during the rush of rush hours. In life (if we are honest) we more often than not are as Wendy was during a hat sale—we size up a person quickly, and we may find the hat they’re wearing to be just right or “all wrong for you,” causing us to have a sudden urge to walk over, whip the hat off that person’s head, and say, “No, you can’t have that one.” And Wendy was simply not wrong, and chances are you are not wrong, either (if you are honest and not projecting your own movie onto someone because of, you know, hat trauma when you were four, or something).

As a lover of millinery and student of human nature, I study the wearers of hats. Should you find this interesting, I offer this quick rundown of personality types as defined by hats as gleaned during Miss O’s limited life experience. As of today, anyway—and listen: If any one of these hats is paired with a startling scarf, coat, or intriguing facial hair, or surprising optical wear (or is anything other than clean)…well, all bets are off. People are people, for crying out loud. But hats, if not being exactly windows to our souls, surely offer chimney access. I suspect we notice a person’s hat before we notice anything else about them. (Test this for yourself.) 

And so, to hats!

Baseball caps, sports team-related or "generic": No muss, no fuss, everyday hard-working guys who like to watch the game, have a beer, take their kids to soccer practice or (if single) take in a little Internet porn at bedtime because chances are they don’t date much if they are wearing baseball hats like this and are still single over the age of 30.

Baseball hats sporting store or brand logo: Fashion-statement types who have a personal and not unattractive (necessarily) vanity when it comes to a “look”; will spend hours in front of a mirror. Warning: Follow a polished, trendy, labeled baseball hat, and find gold chains around a neck. Possibly this turns you on.

English Driving Caps or Tam o'shanters: Adorable men, gay or straight, who like to do things, go places, and chat with strangers as well as friends. These guys are one of two sorts: 1) comfortable with themselves and others; or 2) self-absorbed clothes horses. If 1: Not flashy, but nor are they the sort to wear a baseball cap, if you know what I mean, and blue jeans are probably not a wardrobe staple. If 2: I have known some real jerks who wear these hats, and I mean JERKS. So while hat cuteness is no guarantee of who they are, the hat does invite a person to really look, which is something. (NOTE: Friend George just asked me about men who wear berets. I fear that I find I cannot look upon them, not the black ones, not for long, anyway. I start to feel kind of ooky. And why is that, I wonder? Knitted ones are jaunty and functional and cute, usually like the fellow wearing them. Talk about personal taste: I have no other explanation.)

Small (so-called “new era”) fedora-style hats: Gay, or, if around age 25 (30, tops), musicians or artsy types (gay or straight), very skinny or very fat—it’s usually an extreme that is drawn to this hat, in my observation, so the wearers are either sort of full of self-importance, or else enjoy total whimsy and ease. (Miss O’ doesn’t usually like these guys at all, and she is not quite sure why.)

Cowboy hats: Exactly what you’d think. Pick a country song.

Greek Fisherman’s hats: Sea dreamers. Old-country type guys. Possibly life has let them down. I find these hats sad, if charming. I think these men must drink a great deal to make up for the dreams they did not fulfill.

Knitted skull caps in solid, basic colors: Not much to say here—these wearers—any age, any body type, any profession—could be, literally, anybody, and apparently being “anybody” is exactly what they want to appear to be. They aren’t feeling particularly original, or at least they feel no need to express themselves through what they wear (Caveat: See notes in intro), and yet at least have the balls to admit it's freezing out. They are hidden, these men, and you have to decide whether or not you’d want to work to find out what’s underneath.

Knitted hats of more than one color or with a pattern: Slightly more accessible than the guys mentioned above.

Knitted hats (any color) with a pom-pom on top: Fun. Sense of humor. Out there. Can include you or not in whatever they are doing. They ski, climb rocks, takes risks, but usually in a physical way rather than in an artistic way UNLESS the hat has the added feature of long ties that hang down, with the little tassels at the finish. Then who knows?

Animal hats: Jesus. Unless you are six and your aunt bought it, what the fuck is the matter with you?

Renaissance Faire court jester hats, etc.: Ren Faire folk are a breed apart, and you are either of that world or you are not. But nonetheless, who doesn’t enjoy tearing at the occasional fine turkey leg while sauntering through a glade? Or hearing the tinkling of bells off a multi-pointed felt cap?

Brimmed hats, wide and medium, or other hats that can be worn at a jaunty angle: They want you to think they are interesting, these men. They aren’t. Or, more generously, I’d say one in five are really deserving of such a hat, live up to it, and do so without trying to look self-consciously “cool.” In other words, a fellow wants to wear the hat, not have the hat wear him, if you see what I mean.

No hat: 1) Business types who put hair vanity and the appearance of “cool” above warmth and weather acknowledgement—they OWN the world; 2) Guys who just really hate hats, which means they are probably really, really particular about a lot of other stuff, e.g. my dad; 3) Guys who think that wearing sports ear-warmers will make them look less “gay” than if they wore a hat, which means they are probably, uh, gay.


You can break down female hat-wearers into the same categories, but there’s different information being sent out, whatever equality issues one might bring up. While women wear hats for a variety of reasons, the reasons are both simpler and more complicated than they are for men.

Above all, a woman wants a hat that flatters her features, her body, her hairstyle. It’s a cosmetic decision, the choice of hat. Many of us women will “like” a hat that we don’t have the distance to understand looks terrible on us, but is something we would enjoy looking at. One needs a friend to tell us the difference, and Wendy Carrington was just such a friend. (Another such friend who understands this distinction is my friend Rebecca. This past June, Becca sent me a package in the mail containing a muted burnt orange mohair blazer and a complementary peach-colored raw silk scarf with burnt orange/brown/black felt appliques, both items gorgeous, and in really daring colors for me, and yet I have dared. She sent the blazer because she had tried it on in a vintage clothing store, loved it, realized it was too big for her and the color was all wrong for her, but couldn’t part with it because she wanted to have a way to look at it again, and thought, “Lisa!” The scarf was an accident, spotted in yet another vintage store, and it looked made for the jacket, so she had to buy that, too. Wasn't that sweet?)

Miss O' sports the gifts of vintage blazer and scarf, 
courtesy Rebecca Cummins.
(Photo by Frances Storey, October 2012)

The Way You Wear Your Hat

In trying to live up to the expectations of Wendy Carrington's hats, I have made bolder choices all around in my life. I'm convinced of it. Wearing her hats, I have no doubt, helped prepare me to move to New York and make a success of the move. And to try to make it with integrity.

Wendy’s integrity as an artist is evident in the hats themselves, but, in addition, her true nature as an artist gave her salesmanship an integrity I also admired: She would rather have lost a sale than see you leave with a hat that was wrong for you. Her declaration of “You can’t have that” meant something. “It’s all wrong for you” told you that most likely you will wear the hat once, if ever, but you will surely never wear it again, and her gorgeous milliner’s art will languish in a hat box in your closet. And what would be the point? Waste of your money, waste of her art. It's how any artist should feel (knowing, too, that still one must eat, and then, c'est le chapeau.)

  Summer hats by Wendy Carrington, ca. 2001
(Photo by Miss O')

I bought one of Wendy's hats each year over six years, or so. One spring I purchased two—summer hats, which I’d never bought. Of the ones I tried on that day, these (pictured above) were the best, and I had to choose (I've always lived within my means, however extravagant my soul’s desires); Wendy, however, couldn’t bear for me to leave without taking both of them—"They are gorgeous on you; you must have them both"— so she gave me a nice deal on the pair. I’ve never had occasion to wear the see-through pale mauve one, and so am waiting for the outdoor summer wedding reception to which someone will certainly someday invite me; in the meantime it is the only one of her hats I merely take out to look at (however well I wear it), lacking only an occasion.

I would like to think that my telling you about Wendy Carrington might encourage you to try some daring hat experiments, which could lead you to risk discovering something new and bold in yourself through the fun of millinery, or, at least, bring you to a recognition of how your own hat collection is an outward expression of  yourself in the world—your own hattitude.

Sadly, I cannot find a photo of Wendy, wearing one of her marvelous creations or otherwise, search on Google though I may, nor can I get one of her hat labels to photograph in a way that shows up, so often-worn are her creations. So I leave you with Miss O’s hat and scarf wall in its current incarnation in her Queens apartment, from which view I enjoy them all in full each night.

Miss O's hat and scarf wall, NYC, 2012
(Photo by Miss O')

And this, one last memory: Once in her craft stall, Wendy removed her own ever-present hat to give her head some relief from the heat. It was the first and only time I had seen her hair, which was white, thin, and wispy, gathered into a loose top knot; she saw me notice it, and she seemed for once a bit fearful. “When you wear hats, you cannot care about your hair,” she said, and then she asked, “Do you care about your hair like that?” I confessed that "hat hair" had never really bothered me, because my hair had never been able to be tamed to begin with. “Exactly,” she said; “Wear the hat!” she said. It was a moment of conspiracy and communion between us, this eschewing of hair vanity in favor of artful display. We put on our hats. (I watched once as a dithering potential buyer, looking at herself in the mirror and wearing the perfect hat, said aloud to her friend, “I don’t know.” I looked over her shoulder and said, “Buy it. And WEAR it.” But I knew it was no use. I saw by the way she fussed over her hair that she would never have the courage of her hat, at least not that day.) 

Wendy’s hat art has made not only my wardrobe, but also my life (and the lives of the people who get to look at these hats), richer, especially in winter. 

The way you wear your hat, the memory of all that: In the words of the Gershwin song, They can't take that away from me.

Thank you, Wendy. I tip my hat(s) to you.

 Miss O' offers a tip of the hat to Wendy Carrington 
of Hattitude, NYC, who died in February of 2010.
(Photo by Andrew Quinn, December 2012)