By Style Contributor, Julie
I would never consider myself a “hat person.” Although I love the look of dramatic floppies on ultra feminine ladies, the idea of hiding under a wide brim and overly exaggerated sunglasses is fascinatingly mysterious to me, and I can never seem to pull the trigger. Likewise with the now popular fedora, the juxtaposition between hipster, and preppy confuses me and I can’t decide if I really love the look or loathe it. Unexpectedly, my life long internal turmoil over whether to hat or not to hat came to an apex whilst in Old San Juan…
A tip from a friend who is a native of the lush tropical island lead me to wander the streets of Old San Juan, which in and of itself is a whole other world. I was sent to look for a little shop called Olé. My tipster left out the details of what goods the shop sold, but told me only that it would quite possibly be the highlight of my trip! So as I wandered up and down the cobblestones of this historic city, along with cruise shippers, and rows and rows of uniquely painted “tourist trappy” souvenir shops, I began to wonder if just experiencing the history and architecture was really the aim of my friend’s suggested treasure hunt. Finally, snuggled completely inconspicuously between a haberdashery of this-and-that shops selling painted Old San Juan sea shells, and “My friends went to Puerto Rico and I all I got was this tee-shirt” tee-shirts, was Olé!!
When I finally crossed the threshold into Mecca, I instantly knew that every time I walked out of my flip flops and dodged the call of “hey pretty lady” on this journey was so worth it. Close your eyes, imagine yourself in 1950’s Puerto Rico, now expand your chest and breathe in the smell of fresh moist straw, just a hint of earthy tobacco from a cigar a leathery old man is puffing on. Can you detect the presence of very old atrophying leather bound books? Everything you just pictured was only a morsel of what the authentic ambiance of Olé is like. Thousands of handwoven unfinished hats lined the store’s wooden shelving along with hand carved statues depicting religious figures, and those beyond-old books you were smelling. In the center of the 600 square foot store sets a workbench scattered with very old, very used millinery tools, hat forms, and heavy shears. Every color and pattern of handwoven wide ribbon was housed on giant wooden spools attached to the walls. This was indeed going to be the highlight of my trip!
After an appropriate time of perusing the selection of hats ranging from $40 to $400, a young man who turned out to be an expert milliner, gently guided me to the Panama Hats where he popped a chapeau on my cabeza! I’m not sure if it was the romance of the atmosphere or the fact that this guy was so proficient at his trade that he could eyeball my melon and instantly know the perfect shape of hat, brim style, and size, but I looked in the mirror and what I saw was a beautiful hat person!
I fingered through samples and spools of ribbon that would make my new hat uniquely mine, and after landing on my favorite, my hat was fit, and my ribbon was cut. I watched as his nibble fingers finessed the perfect pinch in the ribbon’s bow and was in awe of how he gracefully applied heat to the hat as he stretched it back and fourth on the hat form. Several eagerly awaited minutes later he presented me with his handcrafted, perfectly fit hat. I was instructed several times that the proper way to put my new friend on was “from front to back.” Apparently this is a very important and crucial part of wearing said hat, because he even yelled it at me as I stepped out of the shop from the past and back onto the streets of today.
It was an absolutely unexpected lesson in appreciation for an almost lost art of hand-craftsmanship. In an era of fast fashion, we tend to forget that there was a day when items we now take for granted we’re actually created with love, art, and talent. When you stumble upon experiences that allow you to peek into the past, soak them up, and remember…always front to back!