Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On Hats & Hatters

A couple of months ago, JJ Hat Center was featured in the Times, complete with a beautiful slideshow of photos. I don't go into JJ often, mostly because I can't afford their hats and trying them on is just a performance with no likelihood of becoming a reality. If I'm in the market for a porkpie or a straw fedora, I'll probably head to Arnold Hatters and deal with brothers Mark and Peter, whose prices are lower. But a trip to JJ Hat Center, just to window shop, is worth it all the same.

In business since 1911, JJ was forced out of a previous location and moved into its current spot, which happens to have been IBM's first New York showroom. It's a gorgeous place, with decorated plasterwork on the walls, and looks like it was made for hats.

They have a few ancient hat-related machines in the shop that still work. One of them, which I found particularly fascinating, is this 70-year-old embossing machine that stamps your initials in gold along the inner band of your hat.

The machine was made by the Roberts Cushman Co. sometime in the 1930s. They hold patents for several embossing machines--this is just one of them, but I add it here because I like the elegance of the old diagram:

Inspired by the hat-sprucing machines, I went searching for a man known as Mr. Horace who ran the Peter & Irving workshop on 38th Street, upstairs in one of the old Garment District buildings where wholesalers sell things like feathers, trimmings, and buttons.

Born in Mississippi in 1928, Horace Weeks came to New York City in 1948 and began working at Peter & Irving, in business since 1935. He became the owner in the 1970s and continued designing, making, and restoring hats in the shop.

photo from RuthShopsNY

I visited Mr. Horace once, maybe five years ago, to see about blocking my old fedora. I remember stepping into a dusty room piled high with wooden hat blocks and straw hats in sherbet shades of pink and lavender and pistachio, the fancy kind worn by Harlem's church ladies on Sundays.

Mr. Horace was standing across the dark workshop in the half-light of an open window overlooking an airshaft. It was summer, a fan was turning, and he wore a sweaty undershirt as he toiled over a heavy black machine. I watched him work for a minute, wanting to talk to him, but he seemed busy and, intimidated, I left without a word.

I have always wanted to go back. But when I went to find him this week, he had vanished. If anybody knows where he went, please let me know. I need him to restore the shape of my hat.


JamesChanceOfficial said...

I LOVE J&J! I bought a hat there over 20 years ago, and have recently been thinking of going back. I'm happy to know they're still around - amazingly.

Anonymous said...

It really is too bad that hipsters have seized hats as their own. I'd love to wear one, but I'd fear being mistaken for one of the shallow manchildren who have also appropriated the beard in their purposefully ironic unfashionable fashion. F**k 'em, I say.

Anonymous said...

No one wears hats anymore; to a yunnie, it's anachronistic. Yunnies wear caps, and would pay a substantial amount to wear a particular brand to advertised their products for free -- Von Dutch, a sports team, the corporation they work for...
"They feel cut off from real human connection so they create constant pseudo-connections via these..." branded caps

Anonymous said...

The yunnies are coming, The yunnies are coming!!! (in Brooklyn)



Anonymous said...

Is JJs that classy looking hat store that used to be on 34th St and 5th Ave, a block down from the Empire State Building?

Anonymous said...

I have just come into possession of a hat block with the engraving "Empire Hat Blocks N.Y" on the side. I can find only one reference to them in the New York Times dated 1917. Address listed as 14 West 111th St. Anyone know if the building is still there?