Celebrity Hatmaker Mr. John and His Fabulous Vintage Hats
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.
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