Allure Of Handmade Hats Carries Long Past Easter

For The Chic And Select, Custom Millinery Is A Year-round 'Essential'

April 19, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Pearl Cooper's hat collection exudes grace and glamour -- dozens of exquisite hats custom-made of ribbon and straw, velvet and tulle.

But she always chooses a simple hat for Easter Sunday. "I have some humdingers," says the Pumphrey grandmother, laughing, "but I don't flag out on Easter."

Specialty shops such as Hats in the Belfry in Annapolis do a brisk business in Easter bonnets, but experts like Cooper say you can't beat head-gear fashioned by hand.

She and many of her friends have personal milliners, most located in Baltimore, whom they have patronized for years.

Visits to Cooper's milliner, Pearl S. Agnew, have been lifelong pleasures for the North County resident and her daughter, Heysette E. Leigh.

The milliner, who at 78 is about ready to retire, invites customers into her hat room, says Leigh. "She serves youtea in real china, and she shows you a model. Then she makes it up for you however you want."

From her mother's collection, Leigh has inherited dozens of hats that bear a "Handmade by Pearl S. Agnew" label. There are silk chapeaus, white hats with dainty black veils, silk-lined hats with matching silk scarves, big broad-brimmed hats, soft cashmere hats and hats with tightly woven braid and ribbon.

Leigh models a chic red and white number that fits tightly on her head. "This is a church or concert hat," she explains. "It's not so big that aperson can't see over you."

There are hats with thin elastic straps, white crocheted lace hats, even some Chinese rice toppers by a Baltimore designer named Zirocote.

For Easter Sunday, Leigh plans tocomplete her outfit with a white straw hat flounced with ribboned tulle.

"Hats and gloves are essential to my health," she says, explaining that they keep her from catching colds, winter and summer, as well as add beauty to her life.

Hats have been part of the Easter holiday since after the Civil War, when Americans favored flower-trimmed bonnets.

But it was the Victorians who made hat decorating an art, tying assorted ribbons, flowers, feathers and veiling atop plain straw hat bases for a fashionable debut in church on Easter Sunday.

Sporting spiffy millinery on Easter continues today, even when mostchurchgoers do not normally don hats, says Erin Kennedy, a sales associate with Hats in the Belfry in Annapolis.

"They come in and askspecifically for a church hat this time of year," she says.

Hat styles change slightly year to year, but this year, fashion is versatile, says Kennedy.

Traditional Easter hats are made of straw and are chosen to coordinate new clothing. Major department stores and mail-order companies are also good hat sources, says Florene Galloway, another North County resident. Her gold straw Easter hat this year camefrom a Pennsylvania company called Essence.

It tips to the side, "like a tam", she explains.

The hardest thing about being a hat-lover is keeping the hats in good shape, said Leigh. "You need a special room to hang them up or lock them away, especially if you have children." Cooper keeps her hats in a room called the Red Room, in which everything, even the carpet, is a formal deep red.

Her daughter wants to keep the elegant tradition alive in the family and has her owngirls wear hats on Easter, even if they protest.

"I love (hats),"she says, pulling another from her collection. "Just look at this feather."

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