Friday, November 2, 2012

The Skinny: Mr. John

He was once cited as the highest paid hat maker in the world. His clients were celebrities, socialites, European royalty, housewives---Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russel, Jackie Kennedy, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe...the list goes on. He was the king of the hat world. In fact, his 1993 obituary in the New York Times said, "In the 1940's and 1950's, the name Mr. John was as famous in the world of hats as Christian Dior was in the realm of haute couture."At its peak, Mr. John's company produced 16,000 hats per year.

Mr. John in a mid-century publicity shot

At the time, the hat was as integral to women's fashion as gloves, furs, and jewelry. In Mr. John's mind, a hat's job was to enhance a woman's natural beauty. This became especially important in film. He reportedly made hats for over 1000 films, including Vivien Leigh's in Gone with the Wind, Greta Garbo's famous headpiece in Mata Hari, and Marilyn Monroe's in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 

Greta Garbo in Mata Hari

  Credit for a costume tended to go to the dressmaker, not the milliner; however, movie publicity stills and head shots were frequently, and not surprisingly, from the head up, and therefore, an actress's hat became the most important part of her ensemble. In "Gives Good Face: Mr. John and the Importance of Hats in Film," Drake Stutesman states, "The film hat served complex functions. It connoted character information (is she mysterious, direct, repressed, sexual?). It's aided lighting (light, shading, or darkness may be needed around her head). It enhanced the plot (implying elements as diverse as depression - floppy, tattered, misshapen hat - or social status - tasteless hat, rich hat, child-like hat). But it's most valuable function was, as John described it, 'the proper display of a woman's beauty' (FIT). It could even be argued that screen goddesses most memorable apparel was their hats." Mr. John was legendary in this world, and knew better than anyone the importance of such a powerful accessory. In a 1970s interview, he said, "A hat is the most dangerous thing in the world, because it shows what you are....A dress you can overcome. But you can't overcome a hat, because that's all you have, a face."

 Although born in Germany, John Harberger grew up in New York, and apprenticed under his mother, Madame Laurel. In the late 1920s, he partnered with Frederic Hirst, creating the John-Frederics company. He left the company in the late 1940s, changed his name to John P. John, and the Mr. John label was born. He made all types of hats--turbans, snoods, picture hats, berets, etc. He was known for adding a short veil with a solitary rhinestone (to simulate a beauty mark), and creating what he called a "monocle veil," a short veil worn over the eyes. He also is credited with the invention of the classic 1920s Charleston cloche hat, as well as pioneering the elaborate couture hats/publicity stunts that Philip Treacy is famous for today (an Eiffel tower headpiece, a stainless steel hat, an airplane hat, a zippered banana, a custom hat for an elephant--crazy, but appropriate for the occasion). The Chesterfield girl's green felt hat was designed by Mr. John. He also invented foldable travel hats, convertible hats, scarf hats, and wimples (okay, he stole those from the nuns, but he still made them popular!). In addition to hats, there are a few other fashion trends that we owe to him. He was the first person to put a strap on a purse. Before that, women had clutches, or drawstrings. He introduced the stole as a fashion must-have in the 1950s. And, Mr. John is the man who put sturdy soles on ballet shoes, so that women could wear them every day, which inspired a whole new category of shoes--ballet flats.

mr. john hat vintage hat 60s hat

 He was extravagant and eccentric. In fact, in the 1950s, the New York Times described a meeting with Mr. John as "rather like having an eighteenth century dream in twentieth century technicolor - with a sound track from La Dolce Vita." One of his showrooms featured floor-to-ceiling birdcage fitting rooms. He once arrived to an awards ceremony wearing a floor-length gold cape, with a live bird perched on one shoulder. In the 1950s, the New Yorker ran a cartoon strip that regularly featured a similar character.
Vogue, February 1950
As hats fell out of favor in the 1970s, Mr. John was gradually reduced to designing for a select few private clients. By the 1980s, he was forgotten by the fashion world (and a fickle world it is). But he left a deep impression on the industry, and his influence is still felt today. We enjoy looking for Mr. John creations on our junk buying travels, and we've been finding them pretty often lately.

 Mr. John knew exactly how talented he was, too. He was once quoted as saying, "My business is strictly an individual business. When I go, there will be no more Mr John. I have only one worry: when I do go, should I reach heaven, what will I do? I know I cannot improve on the halo." I wouldn't be too sure, Mr. John. You could probably figure out a way....
Vogue, September 1956

*Information obtained from :;;;;

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