Lessons From My Blue Felt Hat


I have a felt hat that taught me everything I know about color. I still have the hat.

In the early 1980s, I went on assignment to London, to report on bookshops there. I had lived in London for a few months 10 years earlier and still had a few friends there. PanAm graciously contributed a first class ticket for the flight — in fact, it was and still is, the only time that I sat upstairs in a big plane. It was terrific.

I visited two of the bookshops that had been recommended on the first day, Foyles and another. They were desultory and disappointing and shabby, in a way I can still remember. It was that kind of a time for bookshops.

I remembered a hat shop from years before, a fine hat shop named John Lock over in St. James Place, and knew that it would cheer me. The shop, the oldest hat shop in the world, is from central casting, with very low ceilings, tight windows, tight walls, and a “yes, Sir” as you walk in.

I did not really wear hats then, but I love shops and how they breathe. The shop is crowded with woolen, felt, and straw hats, all in some formality, and the low ceilings transport part of you to the Highlands. At the time, in cinema, Indiana Jones was the acknowledged prince and hero, played by the perfectly-named Harrison Ford. He wore a hat, an adventurer’s felt hat, perfectly, dashingly, boldly, easily.

And, suddenly in front of me, was the perfect Indiana Jones felt hat, on a stand, waiting for me. I looked around, then picked the hat up by its brow with two fingers and plopped it on my head. (Only later, after meeting the senior council of hat blockers and makers did I learn you must NEVER pick up a hat in that way. The oil on your fingers and the pressure will soon make that a place of damage that cannot be repaired — I was shown a shelf of once great felt hats that were all injured for life at the brow).

The hat was precisely my size, a small miracle for I have a fat 7-1/2 inch head. It did not seem like a small miracle to me. I looked in the mirror and it was clearly, and literally my hat, handsome beyond anything I had ever been a part of before. Behind me, in a lovely London dress and jacket, a woman said, with a wonderful smile, ” it is precisely you!” confirming the miracle.

The hat was mine but there was a great problem – it was a dark, deep blue. I had never worn anything that was blue, especially elegantly, beautifully blue. Orange would have been easier, at least that would have been silly. But this was not a silly hat.

They took the hat from me, holding it correctly inside the band, and laid it like a sleeping child into a lovely, large box. I think the price translated to $60 or so, a lot for me and a lot then, but I had it, safely.

Back at the hotel, I laid the box on the bureau and took a jet-lagged nap. There was a small restaurant nearby that I once knew, and I was looking forward to going there for dinner. What friends I had in London were away for a few days so I would be eating alone.

I thought to wear my new hat. It was dark enough outside, and cool enough. I put it on. It was indeed handsome, but it was way too handsome for me, the hat had practically its own force and it was deep dark blue and that was too much for me. I put it back in the box. That hat never did get to walk around London, with me.

I carried it, on the plane, back to Seattle. It sat on my bureau, in the box. Finally, on the first Friday night of my return, I thought, I shall wear the hat on the walk to the Virginia Inn – and take it off when I get there and tell its story. I wore the hat down the corridor to the elevator but could go no further and returned back to the apartment and put the hat back. I was, to put it simply, afraid of wearing the hat, it was too much for me.

Weeks went by, I stewed on my absurd obsession with the hat. How could it be that I could not simply wear the thing, how could it have so intimidated me? Finally, one Tuesday evening, I had enough. I said to the hat (by this time we were on talking terms), we are going out, together.

I put it on my head, it was as wonderful as ever and as potent. I went out onto First Avenue, with pure and palpable apprehension, almost disorientation, the strangest feeling, and headed for the second try to the Virginia Inn. 

When I got there, Frenchy, one of owners, came right up and said, with a big smile, “Great hat, dude.” I took it off, Frenchy took it behind the bar and hung it, where it would be safe. (It used to be, in the days of felt hats, there were considerable accommodations for the hat, including often a hat person but always separate hooks and shelves.)

Somehow, the fearsome spell had broken, I had lived through it, weird as that sounds. I could now wear this remarkable, deep blue hat, I could wear it anywhere. I realized, it was the color, even more precisely it was color itself. I had grown up in New England, and somehow had carefully protected myself from actual color. Khaki was my safety.

Once the spell had broken, then all colors came to visit, from Paul Smith stripped socks to crazy ties and two-tone shoes. I could wear a duck on my head if it would keep me warm. I could see colors and I could let them touch me.

It was the hat that saved me and did the teaching.

Peter Miller
Peter Miller
Peter Miller runs the Peter Miller Design Bookshop, in Pioneer Square, in the alley between First Avenue and Alaska Way. He is there, every day. He has written three books, Lunch at the Shop, Five Ways to Cook, and How to Wash the Dishes. A fourth book, Shopkeeping, A Manual, will be published in Spring 2024, by Princeton Architectural Press.


  1. That is quite the epic hat story, even a revelatory examination of how something as simple as a hat can conjure self-identity issues. Of course, it was no simple hat, as you have described. It seems a years-long, ambivalent relationship, hat-wise.

    I think, generally, West coasters are not hat people, unless its a baseball cap. San Francisco is a probable exception. I was never much of a hat guy, except for the occasional, aforementioned baseball head wear.

    But many years ago my Mz and I were visiting one of her aunties in St. Petersburg, FL. After a short tour of the Dali Museum, we were wandering and window shopping. (I am not big on window shopping.) We stopped in a store full of touristy things.

    Then I spotted it. A straw hat shaped like a fedora, like your deep blue felt job. We had been out in the sun for some time. I thought that, maybe, some head coverage would be a good thing. I tried one on. (My head size is pretty close to yours.) I looked in the mirror. By God, I beheld a rather jaunty fellow gazing back at me. The Mz said she liked it, too. Only $12 and it was mine.

    Back home to Seattle, not much of a hat town except rain hats or wool caps for winter. I rarely wore it for years. But, as we were packing for our move to Kauai, where we would spend seven pleasurable years. Mz brought out the Cuban fedora. For the all-year-round sun, she suggested. I wore it to the airport, standing in line there among Aloha-shirted guys and women already in flowery dress. Few of the men were wearing hats. As it happened, I wore my straw fedora quite often over those several years.

    By the time we returned to the PNW, the front section of the crown was unraveling, but as headwear it remained my seasonal favorite. In fact the slightly unraveled crown was like a purple heart of hattery. I still have it, but will wait for summer to don shorts and my old friend, el sombrero de paja cubano.

  2. What a terrific tale! If the accompanying photo is THE hat, I see that you failed to mention its delightful, wide ribbon band. These classic felt hats, so very snappy, take me back to movie glamor of another era, and to everyday life back then as well—to the past when ordinary men were truly more debonair, IMHO. How I loved seeing my handsome father sporting his grey Fedora as he left to catch the Spokane cross-city bus for work, circa 1953. Thanks for this piece!

  3. I think hats were out of style for young guys back in thre ’80s because they were a little too Sinatra and not at all rock ‘n’ roll. Plus wearing any hat back then could give you a wicked case of hat hair. Fast forward to now – aging, balding Boomers have turned to hats for style, comfort and sun protection. It’s almost mandatory if you’re a musician. Felt porkpie hat for me.

  4. Very nice memoir, with a wild and crazy ending – and I don’t think you were just talking through your hat. Foyles, a favorite of I.F. Stone, shabby? In those days, Charing Cross Road was lined with bookshops. Times have changed.

  5. I bought two hats once, to wear instead my gardening hat with its wide floppy brim, which I did wear on a trip to the Grand Canyon. I tried on hats at a well-known department store downtown, but lacked the courage or cash to purchase one. Another time, I went to an actual ‘hat store,’ the name of which I do not remember, though I’m not sure it’s still downtown. I was warmly greeted and when I somewhat timidly said I’d like to try on hats to wear in our summertime, such as it is, I was led to those hats. When presented with several hats to try on, I was immediately told ‘that looks good on you’ and, lo and behold, I had to agree. Many hats later, I left that store with two hats, approximately costing about the same as one ‘department store hat.’ Both are ‘straw hats,’ one with a ladylike straw bow, the other with a wider flat brim and a black bow. I wear each of them a couple of times each summer, though not as often as my ‘gardening hat.’ I don’t mind ‘hat hair’ because those hats are worth wearing for several hours because I feel good when wearing them. I didn’t know what a hat could do for me until I bought those hats.

  6. Such a lovely story. I’ve seen you with a felt hat, but maybe not this one.
    Don’t know if you remember me. I used to be The Clay Occasion, at the market.

  7. Peter,
    I love your quirky stories and snappy writing. Many years ago I bought a felt hat in Austria for my mother. It’s still in the box these many decades later. Perhaps I shall wear it somewhere, feather and all!

  8. Loved this piece. It reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Billy Collins.

    Poem: Death of a Hat, by Billy Collins

    Once every man wore a hat.

    In the ashen newsreels,

    the avenues of cities

    are broad rivers flowing with hats.

    The ballparks swelled

    with thousands of strawhats,

    brims and bands,

    rows of men smoking

    and cheering in shirtsleeves.

    Hats were the law.

    They went without saying.

    You noticed a man without a hat in a crowd.

    You bought them from Adams or Dobbs

    who branded your initials in gold

    on the inside band.

    Trolleys crisscrossed the city.

    Steamships sailed in and out of the harbor.

    Men with hats gathered on the docks.

    There was a person to block your hat

    and a hatcheck girl to mind it

    while you had a drink

    or ate a steak with peas and a baked potato.

    In your office stood a hat rack.

    The day the war was declared

    everyone in the street was wearing a hat

    and they were wearing hats

    when a ship loaded with men sank in the icy sea.

    My father wore one to work every day

    and returned home

    carrying the evening paper,

    the winter chill radiating from his overcoat.

    But today we go bareheaded

    into the winter streets,

    stand hatless on frozen platforms.

    Today the mailboxes on the roadside

    and the spruce trees behind the house

    wear cold white hats of snow.

    Mice scurry from the stone walls at night

    in their thin fur hats

    to eat the birdseed that has spilled.

    And now my father, after a life of work,

    wears a hat of earth,

    and on top of that,

    A lighter one of cloud and sky—a hat of wind.

  9. After that … apologies for the mundane tone, but, folks, look out for moths. Good hat felt is typically made from fur, and especially after a hat has been used for a whole, it’s irresistible to moths.

  10. I graduated from college in 1971 and entered the accounting profession mere moments after the edict that all CPAs were required to wear hats. I’ve never taken to hats, even in latter years when increasingly elaborate comb-overs are increasingly risible.

    But I maintain that those 50 unencumbered years have spared me from at least 2 inches of spinal compression.

    And for a decade of waiting for the 16 bus at 3rd & Union I was curious about what exactly kept Byrnie Utz in business, but never ventured in. This article makes me wonder if one missed bus ride might have changed my life.


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