In post-war France, a Paris hat was a coveted fashion item
By Mary Louise Giblin Henderson
I wore the Paris hat the other day, the first time in many years it has been out of its hatbox.
Today I think of it as my “Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall” hat. It’s somewhat outré, resembling a Napoleonic bicorn and is made of pink and green plaid silk with two pale green roses decorating the sweeping, turned-back front brim.
I had expected raucous titters when I wore it in a group of men and women who play weekly duplicate bridge. Instead, it earned quite a number of compliments, including “great hat,” from one of the men.
I was be-hatted because one of the female players had suggested that, as a joke, all the women wear hats for the weekly event.
The incident brought back lots of memories from mid-1950s France, when the French were still so grateful to Americans for our liberating role in World War II that they went out of their way to be friendly.
It was the era when six-foot-four Gen. Charles deGaulle — “le grand Charles” to his countrymen — was still a World War II hero to the French people.
It was the era when the French franc was so depressed that it took 375 of them to make an American dollar, unless you were willing to drive to Luxembourg, where the exchange rate was 400-plus, and to take your chances that the French border guards wouldn’t question you. They seldom did.
But back to hats. French milliners have always been famous for their designs, and when I announced to my family that I was going to France, a well-traveled aunt who had achieved minor notoriety for her dramatic chapeaux said: “Of course, you must buy a Paris hat.”
I was staying with American military relatives in Verdun, near the World War I site of one of the longest and most devastating battles in history. There I met a smartly-dressed French woman, whose name, if I remember correctly, was Madame Block. She was also among the minority of Verdun residents who spoke fluent English.
When I mentioned that I wanted a hat from Paris, she told me she knew a Parisian couturier. She said that her letter of introduction would ensure that the couturier would design a hat for me.
So off I went one morning on the three-hour trip to Paris aboard the tiny, antiquated train, which Americans referred to as the “Toonerville Trolley” after an early-day comic strip. I took a taxi to the Rue de la Paix, where the best designers’ shops were located, and climbed to the second floor where Madame Renee Robert, the milliner, was ensconced in her salon.
Madame Block was right. Once she looked over the letter, Madame Robert proclaimed her delight at being able to design something for an American. I spoke passable French — especially since I was a paying customer — and understood it somewhat better, so we got along quite famously.
Madame Robert and her assistant began to discuss passionately what I should have. I was not included in the conversation, as they thrust aside one design after another. Finally, they had a meeting of the minds about what would look good, and Madame brought out frames, crinolines, materials and wiring to show me what she could do.
I was allowed to decide the material and colors, but otherwise the hat was her idea, and I could tell she had no idea of changing the design. In other words, I could take what she offered or I could leave. I chose to take it.
In a couple of weeks, I received a letter in French telling me that my hat was ready, I wrote a two-paragraph reply in French, saying simply that I had received the couturier’s letter and would be in Paris on the appointed date. I was reasonably certain I had the verbs and adjectives in their proper places but turned it over to Madame Block for her critique.
She was diplomatic, but she tore up my letter and rewrote it, using about a page and a half of flowery effusiveness in which she praised the couturier’s designs, her ability and Paris in general.
I had to admit Madame Block was right. When I returned to Paris to pick up the hat, the couturier greeted me as an old and trusted friend.
As I recall, the hat cost a total of $26 American, about 10,000 francs at the then-rate, and I felt that I had gotten a wonderful buy.
Based on remembered wages at the time and today’s exchange rate, the hat would go for at least $200 today.
It was a time when women donned headgear for most social occasions, so when I returned to Grand Junction, I wore the hat many times (to mixed emotions by my friends). But I persisted, despite some rather rude remarks, because, after all, I was wearing a Paris hat!
Mary Louise Giblin Henderson was a long-time political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.