Fear of a Hot Pink Leopard-Print Hat 

A strange world where women wear elaborate sculptures on their heads. Plus: Liz goes to church.

I understand accessories. Necklaces, bracelets, hoop and chandelier earrings, anklets, toe rings, pinkie rings, neckties, bow ties, cummerbunds, suspenders, cravats, ascots, concha belts, headbands, scarves--they all bring me happiness. Hell, I won't even rule out a well-placed dickey. But I'll admit it: I fear the hat. Hats just freak me out.

"There's a little hat person in everybody," milliner Marjorie Marshall assured me. We were in the middle of a three-day series of events thrown last week by the awkwardly named Chapeau: The Milliners Guild. Saturday night was a sort of show, tell, and sell event held in the ballroom at the Chicago Athletic Association downtown. But Marshall admits that you do need the right attitude to pull it off. She pointed out a tall, blond, middle-aged woman in a leopard-print dress and gloves. "She's totally comfortable in a hat," Marshall said.

The woman's name was Benita, and so great is her enthusiasm about headwear that she came from Dallas just to attend Chapeau's soirees. She wore coral lipstick, a mink stole with the head still on--she said her furrier told her it would make activists really upset, so she just had to have it--and a charcoal gray beaded pillbox.

The room was filled with hundreds of concoctions made by six milliners, including cloches, berets, fedoras, modified derbies, grand church hats, and saucy little cocktail hats. Some were sculptural, some were soft--even collapsible--and all were decorated with some combination of fur, feathers, crushed velvet, felt, gaudy pins, dainty brooches, little bits of vintage celluloid, fake flowers, embroidery, old brocades, hand-sewn leather cording, twine, and grosgrain ribbon.

Just for fun I tried on Marthe Young's "Just Peachy," as she calls it, a giant peach-colored straw spectacle with fuzzy plastic peaches nestled in bunches of plastic pearl-finish berries and tufts of feathers, topped with an antique lace doily. I felt like Yankee Doodle Dandy in a retirement home.

While I worked up the nerve to try on this one froofy little number--a hot pink leopard-print disk speckled with pink glitter and topped with a rhinestone-studded hot pink tulle bow and two long strips of hot pink wicker that curled under near the chin--an older woman in black next to me basked in covetous stares. She was wearing a black hat with slim satin ribbons hanging to her shoulder--like a leather-daddy cap made of fabric.

"Tell me she doesn't look like Ann-Margret with Elvis Presley," one woman said to her companion. "Everyone keeps calling me Biker Girl," the woman in black told Joy Scott, the milliner. She bought it for $170.

I put on the leopard delight and several women stopped and stared. "You look adorable!" they squealed. But I'm neither dainty nor ladylike enough to wear something like that--I'd crush the delicate wicker sculpture just trying to take it off.

Benita decided to give it a spin. She ceremoniously removed her own hat and smoothed her hair with a small lime green brush she'd pulled from her purse. She knelt in front of an oval-shaped mirror on a stand. "I need help!" she cried to her friend Pamela, a chirpy woman in a wide-brimmed widow's hat with a sexy black veil. Earlier that night Pamela had told me she has somewhere between three and four hundred hats. "If you have a good enough hat," she said, "you don't even have to have clothes on." She secured the flashy chapeau onto Benita's head, stepped back, and proclaimed, "Oh, that is yummy!"

Another thing I do not get? Church.

The only time I ever went willingly was in second grade, with a Mexican friend, on Ash Wednesday. I went for the novelty. But the whole thing was in Spanish and I had no clue why they were putting dirt on my forehead. It scared me so bad I never wanted to go back.

So it was sort of strange that I found myself at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity in Bridgeport last Sunday night, but it would be the last time I'd get to see my cousin Jen before she took off for Oregon on one of her crystal-mining adventures.

For the past few months the positive-vibe promotions company Brilliantly Mad has been hosting a free open-mike night on Sundays--a sort of "Christian coffeehouse," says host Bryon Medina--at the Orphanage, a laid-back performance space in the church's community center. It begins with a potluck dinner, includes all the herbal tea your bladder can handle, and always wraps up with a hippie drum jam, which is why my cousin was there. There was a drum circle at Jen's wedding, held at an organic B and B last June. But this one lacked something--what's a hippie drum jam if they don't allow drugs or alcohol?

The room was furnished with stuff donated by the church--floppy vinyl couches, outdated office chairs. African masks and bad art hung on the walls, my favorite of which was a painting of a red guitar with a twisted neck and real guitar strings boinging out, an alien baby busting through the sound hole, crying a single tear-drop in the shape of a music note.

The Orphanage is squeaky clean but otherwise pretty mellow. The people here don't evangelize--they just create an atmosphere of groovy (albeit stone sober) harmony and peace. When it came time for the drum circle I resisted the urge to play loud and off the rhythm, tried to really feel it and not be a bitch. Mark Wardo, who runs the space, banged two empty watercooler bottles together, then beat a giant bass drum with a plastic broom. Jen started on some type of gourd but found solace in a didgeridoo. I mostly stuck to a mound of tiny bells strung together.

I felt slightly ridiculous, but managed not to stand out, mostly. After the drumming I sat down at a table, atop which lay a three-ring binder. I started reading the contents: directions for a room purification ritual, incantations for something called an "Imbolgc ceremony," a copy of Edgar Allan Poe's "To the River," a review of The Craft clipped from a newspaper. It was a Book of Shadows, a Wiccan personal journal and scrapbook, belonging to a young woman named Kiara. Wardo said he had found it in the church's basement. "They don't throw out anything around here," he said. I had to admire a church that tolerates witchcraft propaganda.

I felt a draft on my lower back and discovered that my pants were hanging down, almost showing off my ass crack. A woman asked about the tattoo on my back.

"Funny you should ask," I said. "It's my Wicca tattoo. I got it when I was 17."

"Oh, you were into that?" she said casually. The room got sort of quiet.

Mark broke the silence by talking about a job he had for a few months years ago organizing this paper's archives. "Yeah," the woman said. "You came out white as baby Jesus from working in that room all summer."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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