African-American females have been wearing fancy hats to church for generations. That tradition is getting celebrated at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which officially opens in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24. Vintage turbans, caps and fascinators that span a half-century are on display — all from the shop of 1 lady.
Her name is Mae Reeves.
In 1942, a time when couple of girls have been becoming entrepreneurs, Reeves opened what would grow to be a Philadelphia institution with a $ 500 bank loan. Her hat shop, Mae’s Millinery, helped dress some of the most well-known African-American women in the nation, like iconic singers Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne.
Reeves hung her hat above the retailer, raising her household in the very same creating — 1st in downtown Philadelphia and later West Philadelphia.
“You do what you got to do,” she mentioned, reflecting on the early years of operating her enterprise in an interview with the Smithsonian recorded after the museum acquired a collection of her hats. “I had to perform with my household and make a living also. So I did it, and I am quite proud of it.”
Downstairs, buyers ranging from white socialites to black domestic workers kept the money drawer ringing. Reeves’ daughter Donna Limerick, a former NPR producer, remembers putting on a black dress and pearls as a teenager to support her mother sell hats created of blue tulle, pink organza and purple feathers.
“In the course of Mother’s Day and Easter, when females would just come one soon after the other, that bell would just ring, ring, ring,” Limerick says.
Reeves’ hat organization aids paint an extraordinary portrait of the Wonderful Migration, according to Paul Gardullo, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“Consider about this: You’re speaking about amidst of a depression, amidst of Jim Crow, a young woman who has moved from the South to the North, and she produced a good results of herself really from nothing at all,” Gardullo says.
And numerous of the females who wore her hats had been attempting to make much more than just a style statement.
“For black females who grew up in the Jim Crow era, as my grandmother and my mother did, hats were a way for them to take ownership more than their style, a way for them to assert that they mattered,” says Tiffany Gill, author of Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry.
A Philadelphia resident, Gill says she nonetheless hears women talking about how they used to save money to purchase a hat from Reeves’ shop. It was a center not just for black fashion but also for civic life on election days.
“My mom would permit them to bring these huge machines into her tiny little hat shop, so individuals in the neighborhood could vote,” Limerick recalls.
Each city, Gill says, once had at least one particular popular, black-owned hat shop where African-American buyers could typically find far better service than at white-owned shops.
“When I see older females who nevertheless wear hats to church on Sunday or bring them out on unique occasions, it really is just a reminder to revere that generation and the ways they asserted dignity when to be black and to be a woman was some thing that brought about ridicule,” Gill says.
They’re a generation that Reeves helped dress with pride.
“I like to make them quite,” Reeves explained with a chuckle in her interview with the Smithsonian.
Prompting her mother, Limerick asked, “So several females came to your hat shop and when they left, they sure looked gorgeous, did not they?”
“Oh yeah,” Reeves answered.
The hat shop closed in 1997 and a handful of years later, Reeves moved into a retirement home.
“When she left, her final words were: ‘Don’t touch something in this hat shop! I am coming back to make a lot more hats,’ ” says Limerick, who later arranged for the shop’s contents to be donated to the Smithsonian.
Reeves is turning 104 in October and can no longer practice what for her was much more than a craft.
“It was a calling for me, one thing that I loved to do, making them colorful,” she told the Smithsonian. “That is why they came from everywhere to get something different.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture has recreated a portion of Reeves’ shop, total with its original red-neon sign, sewing machine and antique furniture. And she’s arranging to go see her hats again, this time in the nation’s capital.