In the Garment district, a milliners' parade declares that hats still matter

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At the St. Catherine's Day parade. (Matthew Kassel)
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After some thought, I went with the dark blue beret.

I figured it was the nicest hat I owned, and I wanted to make a good impression at the Saint Catherine's Day celebration, a short promenade through the city organized by the Milliner's Guild.

About 20 milliners, all of them women, were gathered in front of the Millinery Center Synagogue on Sixth Avenue near 39th St., the celebration's starting point, at around 6:30 last night. A boisterous bunch, they wore elegant, hand-crafted hats and looked ready to go to church in their Sunday best.

Instead, the cantor (a part-time cantor for the synagogue named Tuvia Yamnik) led them inside, where they were blessed.

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"Millinery tonight represents how a mighty God wanted women to look," said the cantor, who for his part wore a wool flat cap and spoke with what sounded like an Eastern European accent. "You look, all of you tonight, rich, beautiful and rich. Everyone walking the street tonight should think, 'Wow, maybe I should dress like this.’"

The women nodded in agreement.

Linda Ashton, the president of the Milliners Guild, told me that "it seemed appropriate" to gather in the synagogue before taking to the streets to parade their hats, even though the guild isn't Jewish. "This used to be the millinery district," she added.

Composed of about 60 members, just four of them men, the guild was formed five years ago in response to the closing of Manny's, an important millinery supply store.

"We wanted to keep the knowledge alive," milliner Lisa Shaub told me. She wore a lovely fascinator decorated with feathers and pink-dyed fabric.

"I like to think of myself as a professional bird nest maker," she later told me.

"I think it's great that we celebrate a Catholic saint's day in a synagogue," deadpanned Linda Pagan, the founder of the Milliners Guild, as we made our way out of the house of worship and up Sixth Avenue.

The guild's celebration is loosely related to Saint Catherine's Day, a centuries-old French holiday in which young, unmarried seamstresses dress up in yellow-and-green hats and pray that they’ll snag husbands. But no one really mentioned the holiday on Thursday night, and the gathering felt mostly like a good excuse to walk around the city looking very respectable for a couple of hours. Some wore sashes that read "Milliner's Guild" in cursive. At least two milliners brought their husbands along.

As the group approached the ice rink in Bryant Park, a homeless man looked on politely.

"You all look beautiful tonight," he said. "Beautiful."

"I always get hit on by 90-year-old men," said Pagan, who wore a red homburg. "They're like, 'Charming chapeau.'"

I asked her why she thinks hats are important.

"First and foremost, they are an expression of individuality" she told me, without hesitation. "Second, because of climate change, there's never been a greater need for hats. In the summer you need to get a good hat to protect yourself." I hadn't thought of that one. Pagan said she now sells more summer hats than winter hats.

What did she think of my beret?

"They're a great gateway hat," she said.

Everyone in the group that I talked to seemed to have formed some deep and well-thought-out philosophy of headwear. You could compile their aphorisms in a book.

"If a woman wants a man to notice her legs, she wears a pair of nice shoes," Fred Borda told me as we milled about in the park. "If she wants him to notice her face, she wears a hat." Borda wore a borsalino fedora and runs the sales end of Eggcup Designs with his wife, a hat maker.

"To me, it's one of the deepest forms of expression," Ashton told me when I asked her what hats mean to her. She wore a hat inspired by the tramp art style. "Wearing a hat is exhilarating," she continued, "you see the attention we're getting. I think that every single person should have two hats: one for winter and one for summer."

Passersby couldn't help but stare. Some even stopped to take pictures.

Evetta Petty, a hat designer from Harlem, wore a pleated turquoise hat, which matched her coat.

"The African-American people have kept the hat business alive," Petty said. "We wouldn't be caught dead on Sunday morning without a hat," she added with a laugh.

Her friend agreed: "Mother would kill you walking into church with your head uncovered."

The hat-wearers posed for some group shots in Bryant Park and walked over to the Grand Central Terminal to pass out Milliner's Guild buttons to strangers. Then they headed down to the Oyster Bar for dinner and cocktails.

Before taking my leave I spoke with Craig Meachen, whose wife is a milliner, about the significance of hats. His words stuck with me.

"My wife works in the Garment District,” he said, “and I never worry about her coming home late at night. For a woman, a hat is the ultimate expression of power."