Woman of many hats
June 29, 2010
How Fort Collins resident Colleen Estes Cassell came to own more than 500 hats is a tale of serendipity.
The hats themselves tell the story of women in Colorado, from the 1860s through today. And, Cassell weaves her own family’s seven-generation Colorado history through the decades of hats, starting with humorous accounts of her great-great grandmother, Patsy Estes, who traveled across the country on wagon train with her husband.
“It didn’t matter what your life was like,” Cassell told a group of Grand County women at a Red Hat Society luncheon on June 23. “You wore a hat every day and you needed a new one every season.”
From the practical prairie hats of the 1860s and the bonnets made for stage coach and train travel in the 1870s, to the bird feather hats of the 1880s that eventually led to the founding of the Audubon Society, hats continued to evolve as the roles of women changed.
“If you had only one hat, it was black,” Cassell said, noting that with large families and a high mortality rate among children, there was almost always a funeral to attend.
Hat styles changed again when women earned the right to vote in the 1920s and started cropping their hair and their hemlines, and they changed again in the ’30s when Hollywood movies began influencing American culture. During World War II in the 1940s, the lack of fabrics and materials forced hats to be smaller and more intricate.
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Big hats had their last hurrah in the early 1960s and later that decade, Jackie Kennedy memorialized the pillbox and Audrey Hepburn lent fame to hats with tall crowns.
Cassell blames the decline of hats on the Catholic Church and hairspray.
Beehive hair styles in the ’60s and ’70s and big bang hairdos of the 1980s made hats impractical, she said.
Then, in 1983, the Catholic Church lifted its requirement for hats during service, the final need for hats all but disappeared.
Today hats are paraded out for special events, like the Kentucky Derby and high society gatherings in New York City. But, the days of hats as an everyday practicality are gone forever, Cassell said.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to wearing hats like we did.”
Cassell came upon her collection of hats quite by accident. Having studied theater in college, she was relegated to the costume department as soon as her professors learned she could sew. There she became versed in period styles.
When she started having children, she filled a steady demand for costumes between Halloween and school plays. She also started making costumes for a local theater troop and, before long, she found herself in the costume rental business in Littleton.
When she eventually sold the business, she kept the hats. The collection has grown over the years as people donate more millenary history.
“I always say yes when people ask if I want their hats,” she said.
After joining a local “questers” antique club, she began using the hats to do a presentation on the history of women in Colorado and has since been traveling the state giving her presentation to students and clubs.
Some 65 people attended the Wednesday luncheon at the Church of the Eternal Hills. Ninth-graders from Wooddale Church in Minnesota served lunch and tea, which included finger sandwiches and spring salad prepared by the women of the club. For dessert, the club’s “queen” Joan Vonder Heiden made scones and chocolate covered strawberries. Betty Williams made chocolate “hats,” and Jeanne Anne MacDonald made hat cookies.
Barb Warnell cut the doilies for the dessert plates. Sandy Geiser and Betty Jo Chadwick made the centerpieces, which were given away as prizes at the end of the event. Nancy Speery organized the luncheon, which was open to the public. Proceeds were donated to the church and Grand County Characters.
– Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Red Hat Society is a social network for women approaching 50 and beyond. Its mission is to connect like-minded women and to encourage them to have fun together while, at the same time, raising the respect and visibility of women who are entering their next stage in life.
The Red Hat Society officially formed April 25, 1998, when Sue Ellen Cooper of Fullerton, Calif., and a group of five friends, inspired by the poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, dressed in purple clothing and red hats and met for afternoon tea.
Today, approximately 30,000 chapters exist in the U.S. and in more than 25 foreign countries.
The Grand County chapter, which is open to both full and part-time Grand County residents, can be found online at http://www.womenwithaltitude.com.