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Celebrity Hatmaker Mr John and His Fabulous Vintage Hats

Updated on June 10, 2012
Mr. John in a mid-century publicity shot
Mr. John in a mid-century publicity shot | Source

In the 1950s, the name 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. Hats by Mr John 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 word and one of the most popular mileners who ever lived.

Mr John 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.

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 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" and the 1950s into 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 seventies, Mr. John retired into a private life that he had always kept very private and enjoyed the patronage of a few old clients who had by that time become friends.

Publicity photo from 1950s for Mr. John Collection
Publicity photo from 1950s for Mr. John Collection
An elegant Mr. John Yard sale find
An elegant Mr. John Yard sale find | Source

Mr John Hats Make A Comeback

These days hats are making a big comeback for both men and women, thanks to GenY 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. 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.

A 1960's straw boater from Mr John Jr. gets a new life
A 1960's straw boater from Mr John Jr. gets a new life | Source
Repurposed Mr. John plush cloche
Repurposed Mr. John plush cloche | Source
A Mr. John Fedora gets new life. It can be yours on Etsy
A Mr. John Fedora gets new life. It can be yours on Etsy | Source

Everything Old Is New Again

It's hard to believe that these photos are of hats that were created in the 1950s and 60's 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. 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 modes 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 link to a site which shows all the labels under which he sold hats. Check it out before you go hat hunting. The label is a guarantee of the good design and impeccable quality which always characterized Mr. John

How Fashion Was in the 1950's

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    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      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!

    • amy jane profile image

      amy jane 5 years ago from Connecticut

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

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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.

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 5 years ago from new jersey

      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?

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      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.

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Ahhhhh--ok :-)

    • Keri Summers profile image

      Keri Summers 5 years ago from West of England

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

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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 profile image

      Keri Summers 5 years ago from West of England

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

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

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

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      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."

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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:-)

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      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!

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

      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)

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 5 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      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.

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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.

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 5 years ago from new jersey

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

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

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

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      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.

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 5 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

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

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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:-)

    • profile image

      iamaudraleigh 5 years ago

      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!

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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:-)

    • wrenfrost56 profile image

      wrenfrost56 4 years ago from U.K.

      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. :)

    • robie2 profile image
      Author

      Roberta Kyle 4 years ago from Central New Jersey

      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.

    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 4 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

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

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