Hat Boutique Owner Estella Forbes Wheeler

Estella Forbes Wheeler jokes with customers at Estella's Hats, her shop on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington.
Estella Forbes Wheeler jokes with customers at Estella's Hats, her shop on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington. (2004 Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

Estella Forbes Wheeler, a hat designer and owner of a Washington boutique who left poverty and the sharecropping fields of North Carolina to become a local icon in religious, fashion and gospel entertainment circles, died June 12 of ovarian cancer at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. She was 63 and a resident of Landover.

Whether it was the elegant pillbox and wide-brimmed hats for Easter Sunday or a dignified Halo for a woman's final tribute, Mrs. Wheeler didn't just design and sell hats; she perpetuated an experience that is deeply enmeshed in the roots of the black church tradition. For many African Americans who migrated to the Washington area from the South, going to church and looking good for the Lord became a spiritual respite from a working world that had not always been kind.

When Mrs. Wheeler wasn't making hats, she was playing the piano and directing choirs at Faith Temple No. 2 Original Free Will Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, where her brother, Bishop L.N. Forbes, is pastor.

LeRoy Wheeler said his wife would often get up in the middle of the night to make hats until sunrise. Reggie Wheeler said his mother was compelled to design hats because she knew that, for African American women, the hat was much more than a fashion statement.

"Her mother instilled in her as a little girl that at a time when black people didn't have a voice, [a woman's] hat made her feel that she was somebody," he said.

Mrs. Wheeler designed hats for more than three decades in the Washington area, first in the basement of her home, then in Upper Marlboro, and for the past decade in a shop on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Her store, Estella's Hats, became a venue for ladies to catch up with church news and other happenings and was often filled with prominent women and ministers' wives.

From Grammy Award-winning singers Shirley Caesar and the Dixie Hummingbirds to local personalities such as WRC-TV (Channel 4) reporter Pat Lawson Muse, Mrs. Wheeler had many clients. Her hats have also been featured on stages in New York and in several books.

She said her most popular hat was always the Halo, because it wrapped around a woman's head to conceal the hair.

"There are hats for all occasions -- baseball game hats, funeral hats, theater hats," Mrs. Wheeler said in a 2004 interview with The Washington Post. "You notice the Queen Mother never went anywhere without a hat.

"One lady asked me once, 'When is it appropriate not to wear a hat?' And I said, 'According to Mr. Webster, I have not found that day.' "

Mrs. Wheeler was born in Wilson, N.C., one of 10 children of sharecroppers. When she was 12, her mother saved enough money to purchase a hat. The young Estella got into trouble after she rearranged the bow. Little did her mother know that her child had just begun her career as a designer.

After graduating from high school in Snow Hill, N.C., in 1963, Mrs. Wheeler moved to Washington. She worked initially as a diet aide at Providence Hospital and then as a domestic for several physicians. But in the evening, she developed a hobby of collecting and redesigning old hats.

In the early 1970s, she went to the Bruce Monroe design school in Washington and studied under a hat designer known as Mrs. Bené. In 1988, Mrs. Wheeler opened her first store at Melwood Mall in Upper Marlboro. She moved into a retail space on Rhode Island Avenue in 1999.

Reggie Wheeler said that before his mother died, she selected the hat she wanted to be buried in. "It was made by the famous hat designer George Zamau'l. She said, 'When my time comes, I want to be buried in my finest George.' "

In a tribute to her yesterday, hundreds of people, including designers and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, turned out, most of the women wearing hats.

In addition to her husband of Landover, her son Reginald Wheeler of Waldorf and her brother of Newark, survivors include three other children, Domonic Wheeler and Danyell Wheeler, both of Landover, and Darius Wheeler of Silver Spring; two sisters, Josie Millard of Capitol Heights and Louise Nobles of Washington; three brothers, William H. Forbes of Newark, Melvin Forbes of Mitchellville and Willie Scott Forbes Jr. of Largo; and four grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company