Hats by Caroline Kooshoian photos by mark dellas
Except for a spell during the late eighties when teenagers topped their Aqua-Net hair with cheap, craft store felt bowlers...
Except for a spell during the late eighties when teenagers topped their Aqua-Net hair with cheap, craft store felt bowlers, I grew up in a hatless society. To me, hats–the real kind, made of beaver pelts, and steam, and colored powder rubbed into the felt by craftsmen with stained and weathered hands–were for 1920’s gangsters and the lawmen who chased them, or for working family men like the dad on “My Three Sons.”
I’ve never walked into a stadium filled with fans dressed neatly in dark suits and banded hats. I’ve never seen anyone tip his hat to a “Ma’am” on the street. And I only rarely hear the phrases that sprung from a hat wearing society. Nobody’s threatening to “eat their hat if…” or approaching anybody else “hat in hand.” We’re not “talking through our hats,” or doing things “at the drop of a hat.” We don’t know people who are “all hat and no cattle,” who have “bees in their bonnets” or even “feathers in their caps.”
But just as there are cat people, and dog people, and people who love science-fiction, there are hat people. And hat people, whether they’re born or made that way, have crafted or have worn hats right through the past 40 or so years of flagging hat-demand.
Bill Caffrey’s a born hat-wearer. During the fall, or if it’s cold or windy, Bill Caffrey’s got on a hat. It’s a falcon-blue fedora. Soft felt wrapped in grosgrain ribbon with a single, color-brushed feather dashed on the side like a proud and tiny flag.
He smokes cigars and loves a Martini after work. Just a spray of Vermouth. He’s home around five.
He comes in through the front door, and two fat Golden Retrievers push their bodies from the rug’s sunny spots as he crosses the hallway to take off his hat.
Caffrey always puts his fedora in the same place. Front hall closet, over the coats, in front of the liquor bottles. One bright bulb projects a deep-shadowed arc on the white painted shelf beneath its brim. Until he needs it again, that hat sits up in the closet like a museum artifact temporarily off display.
Caffrey always bought his hats at Peller & Mure, the high-end Buffalo, NY clothing store that kept fedoras, homburgs, porkpies, and bowlers on the heads of hat people from 1948 to 1999.
Over thirty years ago, the store hired a kid named Gary White as a sales rep, part time. Just out of college, White had studied criminal justice and never showed much interest in hats or fashion. But Peller made White a hat person. He learned hat history, sizes, and styles. He found he could match any face to the right fur felt. He became the store’s head hat buyer and eventually, joined a group of hat people other than the gangsters, lawmen, and 1950s father figures I’d always imagined.
White became a hatmaker, The Custom Hatter or, as his website cheers in bright, italicized font, “Hatmaker of the Stars!” The shift from sales rep to hat buyer to hat craftsman started at Peller & Mure but really began to take shape on a weekend buying trip in New York City, when White asked fellow hat man Alan Goldberg for an off-the-cuff favor.
“I said to Allen, I said ‘You know what Alan? Someday I’d like to open my own store.’
And he said to me, ‘Well, get a line a credit.’
I said, ‘No, Alan. You don’t understand, I want to be better, I want to learn how to make the hats.’ And I’ll never forget–he stopped, he stopped, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Gary, do you know what your saying?’
‘Yeah, I know what I’m saying, Alan. I just want to be better than the average hat store. If you ever hear of somebody who would take an apprentice let me know.’
A year later he called me. ‘I got a Christmas gift for you,’ he said, ‘I got a guy who wants to teach somebody, but he lives in Lynn, Massachusettes.’”
For the next year, White worked at Peller & Mure during the week and spent his weekends in Lynn, Mass as an apprentice to Master Hatter Henry Goldstein.
Once White became a Master Hatter, it took another nine years–of working at Peller during the day and creating his own hats at night–before he could open his own shop.
With the six solid-wood, hat-shaping blocks and one little machine he could afford to buy from Goldstein, White opened his first hat shop in an old liquor store just around the corner from his childhood home, on Broadway in Buffalo’s East Side. It’s a decayed stretch where empty lots lie between graffiti sprayed, plank-boarded buildings and the new homes, all clumped together at the foot of the street, and the shops still in business reinforce their front doors with black security bars.
About 26 years ago, an assistant costume designer for a Hollywood production of “Cat in the Hat” went to White’s small shop and offered him the job that started his steady relationship with the film industry.
“I’ll never forget it,” White said. “It was on Dyngus Day, the Monday after Easter, and somebody threw a beer bottle through my window. The glass broke perfectly circular.” He draws a circle in the air.
“And so I’m standing inside on the phone calling glaziers to come fix the window and calling my insurance company, and this girl’s standing in the center of the circle. I’m yelling at her, ‘Please step back.’” He motions to the side with one hand, and pretends to hold the phone to his ear with the other. “There’s jagged glass.”
“And she’s saying, ‘But I was told to come see you–I want a hat like “The Cat in the Hat.”
As he’s talking, White goes to the back of the store and returns holding a wooden hat block. It’s taller than the others lined on shelves throughout the shop and it’s the only one with a wide red stripe. “Here,” White says, brushing his hand over the wood and tilting the red stripe upward as if to proove his story, “is the block I used for the “Cat in the Hat” hat.”
The cat’s signature stripes called attention to White’s skill and soon he was working on “The Last Capone” and doing Warren Beatty’s cartoony fedoras for “Dick Tracy.” White bought an old vending company across the street from the liquor store and expanded his business. He did Harrison Ford’s tan fedora in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and has made hats for Tom Petty, Stevie Ray Vaughn,–he wore The Gambler, one of White’s favorites–and even Frank Sinatra.
“Sure I’ve done some nice quality stuff,” White admits. “But I feel I should be very humble to my roots.” In the back of his store, by an antique wood and metal machine that shoots clouds of steam, a worn, dusty, dirty hat hangs on the wall. It’s the first hat White ever made. “You can see where I burned the edges,” he says. But that was a long time ago. Now, White says, “When you come to me and say, ‘Gary create a hat for me.’ I make you a hat that’s going to last you as long as you live. It’s going to be a reflection of your personality. It’s going to look good on you and, you got a hat that’s probably one of the finest quality in the world.”
In the 1960s, about two decades before White became The Custom Hatter, demand for the hat industry and for custom hats began to wane. People attribute the drop to the Beatles’ unshorn shags and to John Kennedy for not wearing a hat to his inauguration. “But that’s not true,” White says, “because Kennedy did wear a hat to his inauguration. He wore a three-quarter long oval.”
For whatever reason hat sales dipped, though, White says he’s noticed the trend returning. “I see a younger element buying hats now that never did before and I see more appreciation for the craft. I also see more gals wearing guy’s styles now, which is a great thing.”
So maybe next fall, when it’s cold or windy and I come home from work, I’ll drop my own falcon-blue fedora on a high closet shelf. I’ll sit down with a paper and a martini and my dogs will loll at my feet. I won’t stake my reputation on some fact or another, I’ll “hang my hat on it.” On sunny days I’ll go to baseball games and when a fly ball comes my way, I’ll stretch out my arm and grab it from the air with the crown of a custom Indina Jones hat, made just for me by Gary White, “Hatmaker of the Stars!”