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 :;;;;

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the Radar -- Add Some Zest

Tribune Standard, Spring/Resort 2013
We're looking forward today, moving into 2013.  We Blackbird girls have been flirting with orange for a while now, but a citrus-y zing of lime, lemon, and orange hasn't been really been on our radar -- until we found THE CHAIR.

We were shopping in one of our favorite haunts recently (we'll never tell where it don't EVEN try...) when we saw it.  A very square, very 1960s lemon-lime-orange houndstooth masterpiece of a chair with, drumroll please...the matching footstool.  In pristine condition.  We snatched it up.  We had to repack the car -- meaning we had to unload everything, put the chair and footstool in, and then repack the other stuff around it somehow.  Then it had to live in the car for weeks.  It still doesn't have a home, but it will very soon.  It's part of a top secret Blackbird project that we will reveal in the coming weeks.  I can't show you the whole thing...but here's a sneak peek!

I thought at the time, "Man, those colors are fun!" But now, after looking around a bit, I've found that it's right on trend for spring.  The zingy colors are everywhere, from cars:

2013 Dodge Dart Rallye with Citrus Peel paint
To planners:

2013 Planner from greengrass2 on Etsy
To fashion:

Rachel Roy, Resort 2013
To quilts and crafts:

Orange Slices quilt by Natalia Bonner, from TrueUp
And then I looked at the Pantone trends -- they are the go-to source for colors -- and they have it all right there on their graphic (along with, ahem, navy*):


*check out our On the Radar blog post from August, Navy Chic.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Junk Love Monday: Tennessee (Is Not For Me)

I realize that I'm going to be insulting the entire great state of Tennessee in this post, but from a junk love perspective, Tennessee stinks. (Sorry.) It is a pretty good neighbor to good old NC, and I have had several great family vacations there, but our buying trip in TN was so bad that the very mention of it results in A). instant despair; or B). deep bitterness (with a bit of stink eye aimed at whomever dared to utter the word). It was, we have decided, our worst trip ever (although Canada is still a top contender, but that story will come later).

We had originally planned to spend a long weekend in the North Carolina mountains for Easter, visiting our favorite junk shops and antique malls and enjoying the perfection of Asheville in the springtime. But, someone we knew called us to say that they had won a free weekend at a nice hotel in Gatlinburg, but they had other obligations that weekend, so they offered it to us. What a nice surprise! We accepted. This was the worst decision that we have ever made.

We should have known that the Universe was trying to tell us something when we hit the traffic on I-40 in Asheville. There was major road construction, and a series of detours partnered with our evil GPS to keep leading us back into Asheville. We spent two and a half hours in traffic jams, looking for detour signs, reprogramming the GPS, and passing the same gas station over and over again (but from different directions). I finally pulled my trusty old atlas out of the back and navigated us out of the chaos. We ended up on a curvy country highway, which led us into the most deserted part of the mountains that I have ever been to. At this point, we had been on the road for around seven hours (it should have been half that), it was dark, and we were winding our way past widely spaced cabins with no lights on, in an area where the GPS and cell phone refused to pick up a signal. Finally, the GPS came to life and pinpointed the location of our hotel. This is when we learned that you should never trust a GPS in the mountains after dark.

It was midnight, and we were in a manual transmission automobile on a nearly vertical incline, performing acrobatic feats around hairpin turns in an unfamiliar place (still with no cell phone signal), and then the GPS decided we needed just a little more spice in our lives. We ended up on a gravel, single lane road that took us up and over the peak of a mountain. The incline was so steep that we slid on the gravel in places. We were nearly hyperventilating by the time we got back down out of the clouds and spotted the bright lights of a hotel. We finally located an entrance, which strangely took us through a corridor of dumpsters and to the back side of the building. We thought it was weird that the entrance would be in the back, until we circled the (huge) building and discovered...a well-populated area with an INTERSTATE running by A HUGE ENTRANCE with A HUGE SIGN for the hotel. Yes, the GPS took us the back way. It was now almost 2am, and we had been on the road for around twelve hours. (For the geographically impaired, it should not take anywhere near twelve hours to get from the center of North Carolina to just barely over the Tennessee border. We could have made it to New York in that amount of time.) Needless to say, this was not an auspicious beginning to our journey.

But, you pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and blah blah blah. So, the next morning, we were up and ready to find junk. We had a list of shops in the surrounding cities, and enough time to search for more, and we hit the road. And...nothing. It took us over an hour to find a shop that even still existed, and it had the bad kind of junk. We finally drove to Knoxville, where the majority of the shops on our list were supposed to be, and discovered that 99% of them had gone out of business. (This is why we now call if a shop is more than 5 miles from our current location.) We did find one gem, an antique mall called Nostalgia (, which was absolutely fabulous, but one good hit is still not enough to cancel out all of those misses...and the misses just kept coming. We found nothing. The Goodwills have moved or shut down. Same for the Salvation Army stores. Little independent thrift stores are actually car part shops in a part of town where everybody's got bars on the windows. We were incredibly depressed by the end of the day, which is made even worse by the fact that our favorite remedy for depression is junk shopping (oh, the tragedy!).  And yes, the trip got worse.

The next morning, we received a phone call from a perky person asking if we were ready for the tour. What tour? Oh, yeah. Our free hotel miracle weekend, so lovingly passed on to us, was actually a timeshare tour. And, I quickly found out, if you don't take the tour, they bill you for the entire stay. We had already been there two nights, and the regular rate is $191 per night. And, they were expecting the person who had actually "given" us the stay, so I had to pretend to be somebody else for four hours in a golf cart, making up funny anecdotes about a nonexistent husband and firmly declining to purchase a timeshare. Granted, this part I don't blame on the great state of Tennessee. This can be blamed on an actual person.

Did the trip get worse? You betcha. This was Easter weekend, so before we left home, we called our favorite shops in the Asheville area to make sure that they would be open on Easter Sunday as we were driving back home. They said yes. They lied. We drove to Asheville, and then spent two hours driving to places that were, in fact, closed for the holiday. At this point, we realized that nobody else stays open on Easter, either. Target? Nope. The mall? Nope. We actually got so desperate to buy something--anything!--that we drove from town to town (in the general direction of home) looking for something to be open. We finally found a Big Lots, and I would bet that those employees still remember the two crazy girls who rushed in like castaways reaching dry land for the first time, piling a shopping cart full of a weird assortment of items and making loud, exclamatory statements about everything. Look at these socks! I have to have these socks! I want two pairs of these socks! Oh, look--garden hoses!!!

I had developed an eye twitch by the time we got home. (By the way, where we come from, the shops DO stay open on Easter. We made it back one hour too late to go to any of them.) At this point, we were so disillusioned with the world, it was like somebody had just stabbed Santa right in front of us. The funk lasted for days. We were even too depressed to go to Goodwill. Eventually, we got back on the horse. But the trauma lingers, even today. When we are disappointed by other things, we tend to remark, "At least it's better than Tennessee." Oh, Tennessee. You are definitely not for me.

Picture borrowed from