"Keep anything 25 years and it will come back in style," grandmothers once said to excuse their clutter -- uh, collections.
A letter from a lady in the country offers new evidence on this old wives' tale. Elizabeth Gordon writes from Adamstown, Md., near Frederick:
"In the '40s and '50s, when I was the editor of House Beautiful and somewhat in the public eye, I dressed very carefully and thoughtfully -- as befits one whose very work implies good taste. Since hats were being worn in those days, I had a good milliner, Robert Dudley.
"He was very creative, and designed hats to go with different costumes so everything coordinated (though not necessarily matching -- too obvious). Also he used a lot of classical hat shapes -- tam-o'-shanter, Napoleonic tricorn, pillbox and so on. We would repeat a successful shape in different colors and materials -- once we arrived at a successful one. We didn't pay much attention to the current styles."
Gordon's hats were shaped to fit her trademark coiffure -- a thick roll down the back of her head.
Gordon's efforts to design herself as she would a magazine page were appreciated. "My hats became sort of famous, so right for me and my clothes. Men on the street would bow and say, 'Madam, may I tell you that is a beautiful hat?' "
About 20 years ago, Gordon and her husband Carl Norcross (also an important writer and editor, of House and Home, among other shelter magazines) decided to enjoy full-time the elegant and the efficient life instead of simply enjoining others to live well. That's when they moved to the small town of Adamstown.
Gordon always makes the point that any object could be art if it were beautifully designed and exquisitely made. So she packed up 25 of her best hats in splendid hatboxes and brought them down with her Otto Natzler ceramics, Japanese fabrics and art moderne screens. She displayed the ceramics and made dresses of the fabrics and closet doors from the screens. She put the hats in the attic. And forgot about them.
Until: "About six months ago, when I saw hats appearing in fashion photos, I remembered mine and got them down and tried them on. They still looked great."
So she began to wear them grocery shopping in Frederick. And it changed her life. Instead of standing first on one foot and then on the other waiting for help, she'd have three store clerks at her service. A customer came over to help her bag bulk groceries. On the street, a young man -- a stranger -- bowed politely and said, "Lady, that's a beautiful hat."
"In a restaurant I got a note brought by a waiter from two couples across the room saying, 'We took a vote. We think that is a wonderful hat.' I bowed my head in thanks. Another time, I got out of my car to go into a store, and a woman coming toward me turned and walked backwards so she could see me longer."
Though others might dispute her disclaimer, Gordon gives all the credit to the hats, modestly protesting, "All of this is not because I am a beautiful woman. I am 80 years old and have the face and wrinkles that go with 80 years. But apparently the human head takes kindly to some kind of adornment. And classic shapes, evolved through the centuries, speak to others -- if the adornment is in scale to the head and face and bears some relation to the rest of the costume."
For those born yesterday, it may be necessary to mention that in the '40s and '50s, no proper woman ever took out the trash without first putting on her hat.
Washington, as a ceremonial town, was a major hatrack. The hats etched on everyone's memory belonged to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, enfant terrible of the White House during the terms of her father Theodore; the Alice in the song "Alice Blue Gown"; the wife and widow of Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth; and grande dame extraordinary. Longworth, in her very long old age, neither set the styles nor followed them, preferring to proceed at her own step to a different drummer. At parties, one could always find her by her huge hats. They were always the same wide-brimmed, undecorated shapes, more umbrella than hat. The story goes that President Johnson complained he couldn't kiss her under all that hat, and she replied: "That was why I wore it."
Sonia Sheftell, the last milliner on Connecticut Avenue, where she had a shop until 1979, reported in an April, 1979 story in The Washington Post that Longworth ordered hats right up to her 91st birthday. "She'd come in every spring and order a five-inch brim Milan straw in brown, navy and black."
Though hats may be fashionable again, Gordon says they don't make them the way they once did, when milliners were artists. But Gordon says, "I don't have to worry. I have 25 hats that are still going strong, even after 30 to 40 years."
A tip of the hat to grandmother and styles that come again.