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.