Skip to main content

Celebrity Hatmaker Mr. John and His Fabulous Vintage Hats

I have been blogging and writing online since 1996. I enjoy topics as varied as graceful aging, self-care, and vintage hats.

Mr. John in a mid-century publicity shot.

Mr. John in a mid-century publicity shot.

A Milliner for the Stars

In the 1950s, Mr. John was as famous for hats as Christian Dior was for haute couture. Mr. John hats were synonymous with elegance, style, and glamour. The man and his hats reached the apex of the fashion world. Nobody else even came close to him. Hollywood studios paid him design hats for such notables as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Vivien Leigh. Society matrons swooned over him and he was a major celebrity on his own.

In the 1950s, a Mr. John hat was de rigeur not just in Hollywood films, but also on fashion runways and in the watering holes frequented by high society in New York and Palm Beach. Mr. John's client list included such luminaries as the Duchess of Windsor, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Gloria Swanson, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Lauren Bacall. His hats were treasured possessions not just of the rich and famous, but also of upwardly mobile, fashion-forward women everywhere. At his peak, he employed 150 people and produced 16,000 hats a year under several different labels. In short, he was a household name and one of the most popular milliners who ever lived.

All But Forgotten in the 1970s

When hats went out of style in the 1970s, Mr. John's fame and clientele waned, as well. By the time of his death in 1993, he was virtually forgotten, though according to his obit in the New York Times, he continued to service a select few private clients until about a year before his death. He is famously quoted as saying that he didn't know what he would do if he got to heaven because he knew he could not improve upon the halo.

Personal Story and Building a Career

The man who designed hats for everyone from suburban matrons to the crowned heads of Europe, and whose hats from the late 1940s through the early 1960s simply bore the label "Mr. John," began life as John Pico Harberger in Germany in 1906. He immigrated to the United States in 1919 with his family and served an apprenticeship with his mother, Madame Laurel. She owned an upscale hat shop on New York's fashionable Upper East Side back in the days when a lady always wore a hat and gloves. Mr. John learned his craft well and worked with his mother for several years.

In 1929, he formed a partnership with Frederic Hirst, and under the label John-Frederic's they became vastly successful designing hats for Hollywood films to be worn by the era's biggest stars. The partnership dissolved in 1948 with Hirst retaining the rights to the John- Frederic label and John moving to New York and beginning to create hats on his own under the label "Mr. John."

Mr. John (both the man and the label) rode the post-war wave of prosperity through Dior's "new look" of the 1950s and into the 1960s with its fashion revolution and emphasis on mini-skirts and the Beatles. He managed to absorb Carnaby Street panache into his restrained elegant style with great success. As hats went out of fashion in the '70s, Mr. John retired into a private life that he had always kept very private. He enjoyed the patronage of a few old clients who had by that time become friends.

Mr. John Hats Make a Comeback

These days, hats are making a big comeback for both men and women, thanks to Gen Y enthusiasm for all things retro and vintage. Worn with a youthful panache and adventuresome pairings that the 1950s woman imprisoned in slip and panty girdle could never have envisioned, the hats of Mr. John have made their way from grannies closet and the local thrift shop to the wardrobes of a new generation. What could be better for Mr. John?

What used to be called a "cocktail hat" is now called a "fascinator" and has taken the fashion world by storm. Everything old is new again. Lucky modern girls can own a Mr. John for a lot less than their mothers and grandmothers would have paid. They are to be found at garage sales and consignment shops and online through e-Bay and Etsy. One doesn't have to look far.

Everything Old Is New Again

It's hard to believe that these photos are of hats that were created in the 1950s and '60s when life was more structured and formal and fashion, in imitation of life, adhered to rather rigid rules. (I'm talking about things like not wearing stripes with plaid; or white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day; or patent leather shoes in winter. Never let your bra strap show. Always wear a slip. Always tuck in your shirt. Etc.) The hats of Mr. John are obviously classic and timeless. They fit so well with today's more relaxed, bend-the-rules fashion looks. I just love their versatility.

And clearly, so does a whole new generation of women who are snatching up Mr. John models wherever they find them. Personally, I am all about re-using and re-purposing everything possible, and I am delighted to see Mr. John once again coming into his own.

Tips on Buying Vintage Mr. John

Looking for a Mr. John hat of your very own? Let me warn you that googling "Mr. John" will probably bring up lots of listings for a company that supplies portable toilets to large outdoor gatherings, You'll do better by searching for "vintage hats" or checking out Etsy and e-Bay. You might also try a wonderful e-shop dedicated to hats called The Vintage Hatbox.

I live in an area where there are lots of good consignment shops, and these are a good bet for Mr. John hats. Consignment shops these days don't get too many hats, but you could always leave a request with your favorite to let you know if a Mr. John model comes in. Yard sales, flea markets, and local auctions are also great places to poke around. You never know what you will find.

A word of warning—a genuine Mr. John will have one of his labels inside the brim. Don't take anybody's word; look for the label. Here's a website that shows all the labels under which he sold hats.Take a look before you go hat hunting. The label is a guarantee of the good design and impeccable quality which always characterized Mr. John.

Related Article


Laura Brown from Barrie, Ontario, Canada on November 08, 2012:

I love old hats. I would like to be a hat maker. I often find old hat making patterns at the thrift store.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on June 21, 2012:

So glad you liked the hub wrenfrost56-- Actually, here in the States, Mr. John is making something of a comeback as hats make a comeback and his hats are being snapped up by the young and hip at flea markets, vintage clothing shops and online. I'm really glad to see that as he was so talented.

wrenfrost56 from U.K. on June 21, 2012:

Another Fascinating hub robie2, I had not heard of Mr John Before, it's a shame he got forgotten about especially as he was so influencial in fashion. Thanks for that. :)

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on May 08, 2012:

Oh thank you Audraleigh-- I love hats too-- especially ones with big floppy brims. Thanks for reading and voting-- you are just the best and a ray of sunshine, always:-)

iamaudraleigh on May 08, 2012:

I love to wear hats!!! This was a fun hub to read!!! I will check out the sites you wrote in this great hub! Voted it up for fun this morning!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 03, 2012:

thanks alocsin and ar. cotton-- I can't imagine that either one of you is old enough to remember Mr. John in his heyday-- after all he was already making hats for Hollywood stars in the 1930s and he was pretty much done by the 1960s, but I am told he was quite a genius and I think his hats speak for themselves. I am soooooo glad hats are making a comeback. BTW, in a shameless plug for myself, I do a blog about hats on Eye on Life e-zine called " A Hat for All Seasons" drop by anytime:-)

Mikal Smith from Vancouver, B.C. on March 03, 2012:

I can't believe I've never heard of this designer. And I love hats. Thanks so much for this hub!

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on March 03, 2012:

Those are excellent hats. I'd never heard of him so thanks for pointing out his contributions -- glad he's made a comeback. Voting this Up and Interesting.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 13, 2012:

Wow that's great-- once you buy one, you'll be hooked:-)

shea duane from new jersey on February 13, 2012:

I just found a vintage Mr. John hat for sale on ebay! I'm thinking seriously about buying it!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 09, 2012:

elegant yes-- but don't forget the torture of the waist cincher and the " merry widow" not to mention all those girdles and garter belts-- there was a reason women burned their bras in the '60's :-) Thanks for stopping by and for reading and commenting ST. I must say I love Mr. John hats and I think the man himself must have been quite an interesting character.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on February 09, 2012:

This is such a super Hub, Robie, and that video is just gorgeous. I was taken by how the male photographer was dressed in one of the Paris street scenes...dress shirt, tie, creased trousers. What an elegant time.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on February 04, 2012:

Love those vintage hats - I try them all on but never wear a hat unless it's 20 degrees outside. Anyway, don't forget the straw hats - hot to be worn after Labor Day, or someone could punch a hole in the straw hat and it would be okay. (My father told me about that)

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 04, 2012:

Thanks Steph-- he must have been quite a character. Funny how quickly people get forgotten. He was so famous when he was alive and then poof! Just goes to show ya -- hope he's wearing his halo at a jaunty angle LOL

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on February 03, 2012:

Gorgeous, fascinating hub! I have to admit I didn't know about Mr. John hats, but I feel inspired to shop for some fabulous vintage finds. Love his comment about not being able to improve on the halo when he goes to heaven. Priceless. Another great one, Robie!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 03, 2012:

I am so impressed that you have an extensive collection of vintage hats-- I will be over the moon if it turns out you have one by Mr. John. You very well might-- he made a lot of hats in his day:-)

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on February 03, 2012:

Now I will feel compelled to go through my extensive collection of vintage hats to see if I have one with the label proclaiming, "Mr. John."

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 03, 2012:

I'm all for that LOL In fact, I'm all about less housework-- at least less housework for ME :-)

Keri Summers from West of England on February 03, 2012:

Yes, love it. There should be more hats in life, and less housework. Thanks for the follow!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 03, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by, Keri. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub and got an interoduction to Mr. John-- isn't his stuff great?

Keri Summers from West of England on February 03, 2012:

I loved this hub. A real treat, and very informative. I think my favourite was the plush cloche.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 03, 2012:

Ahhhhh--ok :-)

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on February 03, 2012:

Actually, I meant the resurgence of hat wearing in the UK that was taking place long before the future Duchess of Cambridge (officially) arrived on the scene. The millinery creations worn by female guests attending the nuptials of Prince Charles and Horse Face - whenever that was - were impressive. Jewelry can dress up an outfit, but not in the same way a pretty or striking hat can.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 03, 2012:

I love hats too Shea and yes I do wear them as often as I can. Hate to admit it, but that is not MY yardsale find, but that of a fellow blogger who wrote a post about it... but isn't that hat great? Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by and reading and commenting.

shea duane from new jersey on February 02, 2012:

I love hats, and I love your yard sale find! What a great hub! Robie, you have such great ideas for hubs! Do you wear hats?

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on February 02, 2012:

Hi Jama-- Yes indeed. I assume you are referring to the fair Duchess of Cambridge aka Kate Middleton and her flair for fascinators. I think she is single-handedly reviving the hat biz worldwide LOL

Hi Amy-- yup I love that fedora too-- can't figure out if it was originally meant for men or women, but it is totally fabulous on either sex I think. Thanks for stopping by and having a read.

amy jane from Connecticut on February 02, 2012:

I love the re-purposed grey fedora!:)Looks like I need to shop the local consignment shops...Thanks for the fun read!

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on February 02, 2012:

Were Mr. John alive today and residing in London, he'd be up to his hatband in orders for new creations. Real style never goes out of style!