Hats off to the Flower Mart's concept of `fashion'

Wardrobes: During May, spring `finery' might be from retrieved from the attic rather than a women's clothier.

May 13, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

THE FLOWER MART I knew in the 1950s was a hoot. It summoned all sorts of people who never usually mixed in one place and certainly never spoke to one another.

I'm not sure they became bosom buddies on that May afternoon, but at least they gathered around the couple of blocks of Baltimore they respected for their history, architectural grandeur and pleasant memories.

It was also the day when you got dolled up in your spring finery and walked along Charles Street, strolled around the Washington Monument and complained of the difficulty of hailing a cab on the way home.

In that era, the words Baltimore and spring fashion did not always go hand in hand in the manner of a layout in Harper's Bazaar.

The fashion show at the Flower Mart leaned more toward early attic, or, in the manner of my home, the third-floor closet.

The Flower Mart was so much fun because even when people took their clothes-wearing seriously, they often, well, looked like Baltimore, which was just fine with everybody there.

I seemed to recall a lot of light wool spring coats (reeking of mothballs) that had seen many a wearing on an April or May afternoon. Could they have been bought in the era of Harry Truman? Well, isn't that what makes Baltimore an endearing place?

I never gave up the chance to tag along on the buying trips that often preceded the Flower Mart. These were my family's weekly expeditions to Howard and Lexington streets, the land of the department store and the five-and-dime counters.

These trips downtown were whirlwind jaunts around the businesses with names such as Hochschild, Kohn, Hutzler, Stewart, Brager, May and Gutman -- along with a couple of exotics such as Schoen Russell, a Charles Street women's store preferred by my grandmother.

It was the most conservative store I've ever been dragged to. I know that not every dress was black, but it was no rainbow of color either.

Most shopping trips were as much fun as a visit to the Flower Mart, except on those days when my elders were selecting their own spring chapeaux. Watch out, baby, these were the fashion decisions to try the patience of a normally well-behaved 6-year-old.

My mother hated hats and treated them as a useless appendage to the head. The only hats she liked were mink, Alaskan seal or beaver -- and she wore these only for the practical necessity of warmth.

Her mother and aunt -- my grandmother and great-aunt -- were born in the 19th century and retained many of preferences and customers of Baltimore of that period. They believed in hats and invested appropriately.

Hats were expensive, they appealed to vanity, and you were judged appropriately -- especially at church, where they were the law unto themselves.

As a non-impartial observer, I can say the trying-on and the approval process seemed to occupy hours.

What I recall to this day was that the more expensive the hat, the better the box it came delivered in. Aunt Cora's $55 hats arrived in the fanciest of boxes, in two shades of Hutzler Brothers pink, all tied with thick silk cord.

How did they look?

Of course, like something you'd wear to the Flower Mart.

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