Costume collection manager Jessica Pushor puts one of our Bes-Ben hats in the spotlight.
With the autumn chill in the air, stores are enticing shoppers with warm clothes for the fall. Hats were once a major part of a woman’s wardrobe, and here at the Chicago History Museum, we have found the perfect one for the change in seasons.
Woman’s hat of brown felt worn by Mrs. Samuel Liebman, c.1965. Gift of Mrs. Samuel Liebman, 1988.74.1. Photographs by CHM staff, unless otherwise noted.
Mrs. Samuel Liebman (née Doris Valerie Frazin), a devoted patron of the Bes-Ben millinery shop, donated this cloche-style hat to the Museum in 1988. It sits low on the head and is covered in Indian corn appliques and brown bows. Benjamin Green-Field, the owner of Bes-Ben, referred to Mrs. Liebman as the “Hat Lady” because she loved hats and wore them well; some of her hats were made especially for her by Bes-Ben.
For more than fifty years, Benjamin Benedict Green-Field (1898–1988) owned and operated Bes-Ben, one of the most famous millinery shops in Chicago, if not the world. Green-Field and his sister Bessie started Bes-Ben in 1919; the name of their shop was a combination of their first names. Their partnership lasted until 1939 when Bessie married and left the business.
Benjamin Green-Field with a hat maker at his shop, c. 1956. ICHi-31750
At his store at 928 North Michigan Avenue, “Chicago’s Mad Hatter” used unusual items to create spectacular and whimsical hats. Green-Field was once quoted as saying “You can’t make a hat too crazy for women to wear!” which he proved by decorating hats with lobsters, swans, miniature clocks, and bees.
Every summer, he held a sale where everything was $5, an amazing deal considering that most of his hats sold for more than $100. People would line up in the middle of the night for a chance to grab a hat flung out to the crowd by Green-Field himself. It typically took an hour and a half to empty the entire store of around 400 hats, then the shop closed for several weeks for a staff holiday. Green-Field often embarked on one of his famous around-the-world shopping trips; he is said to have been around the world more than fifty times.
A crowd outside Ben-Ben clamors for hats at 2:15 a.m., 1963. Time LIFE, photographer unknown, ICHi-32362
As hats declined in popularity, Bes-Ben began creating and selling decorative pillows made from the exotic fabrics Green-Field purchased during his trips. He held the last $5 sale in 1964 and closed his shop for good in 1978, throwing a large party and inviting everyone to wear a hat.
Green-Field at the opening of Benjamin Green-Field/Bes-Ben on April 14, 1976, with Mrs. A. Loring Rowe (left) and Mrs. Gardner H. Stern. ICHi-69732
The Museum has hosted two exhibitions on Benjamin Green-Field. The first, Benjamin Green-Field/Bes-Ben (1976), featured more than two hundred hats. The second, The Wit and Fantasy of Benjamin Green-Field (1984), showcased pieces from his personal wardrobe and decorative home items from around the world as well as Bes-Ben hats. Today, the Museum has two spaces named for Bes-Ben—the Bessie Green-Field Warshawsky Gallery and the Benjamin B. Green-Field Gallery. Bes-Ben also has an enduring presence in our Crossroads exhibition, which features a rotating selection of its most fabulous styles.
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Costume collection manager Jessica Pushor provides tips on how to create the perfect look for 1933.
As the Chicago History Museum gears up for another amazing The Last Speakeasy on the Eve of Repeal event, please remember that toy guns of any kind are not permitted in the Museum nor are feathers. No feather fans, no feather boas, no feathers in hat bands, no feather hair decorations. If a bird made it, you will not be allowed in wearing it! But, why?
Chicagoans celebrate the repeal of Prohibition at Hotel Brevoort’s world-famous Crystal Bar, 1933. Photograph by the Chicago Daily News, Inc. DN-A-4954
Feathers are largely made from a type of protein called keratin, which is an extremely attractive food source for insects, such as beetles and moths. Feathers can also harbor insect eggs. Insects are ravenous eaters, capable of quickly chewing holes in fur, leather, wool, and silk. If an infestation were to occur, it could result in irreversible damage to the Museum’s collection.
Since so many costumes include the offending feather items, here are a few ideas that go beyond the typical 1920s short fringed dress or gangster getup.
Let’s set the stage for December 4, 1933. Not only is the US in the midst of the Great Depression, with nearly one out of three people unemployed, but it is also the middle of a great drought known as the Dust Bowl. Early in the year, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, and FDR was sworn in as president. It is a tumultuous time, and fashions of the day reflect this more austere sentiment.
Fashions of the Hour, the local fashion publication put out by Marshall Field & Company, holds a wealth of information about the offerings of Chicago’s popular retailer. Looking at the issues from 1933, one begins to see that evening dresses are long, most reaching the floor. The waist is back at its natural spot and is often defined with a belt or tie. Dresses are usually draped on the bias, creating a smooth and sleek effect. Ruffled trim at the hem and sleeves is also common.
The spring 1933 issue of Fashions of the Hour highlighted American-designed ensembles (left) and the latest Parisian trends (right), including sleek draped dresses and accordion pleating. ICHi-76919
The year’s Christmas issue featured an array of gloves, shoes, hosiery, and handbags. ICHi-76918
Since men’s fashion tends to change at a slower pace, there is a less dramatic shift from the 1920s to the 1930s. In 1933, stylish men wore dark suits, both single- and double-breasted, with crisp white button-up shirts, pocket squares, ties, suspenders, and a hat; fedoras, bowlers, and trilbies were all acceptable hats at this time.
This 1930 article addressed fashionable looks for husbands. ICHi-76917
So, how did Chicagoans dress to drink on December 5, 1933? The Museum’s collection contains photographs of people lining up for their first legal drink in thirteen years . . . and there’s not a feather in sight.
A crowd jams the bar in the Palmer House Hotel during the repeal of Prohibition, 17 East Monroe Street, Chicago, c. 1933. Photograph by the Chicago Daily News, Inc. DN-A-4938
Fur coats and stoles, bowlers and fedoras were all in style in the 1930s. Photograph by the Chicago Daily News, Inc. DN-A-4961
Still uncertain about your attire? You can always look to popular movies and their stars for inspiration. Watch Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, Mae West in I’m No Angel, or Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement. The Golden Age of Hollywood has countless stars—Fay Wray and Bette Davis, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, among others—who can inspire your 1933 wardrobe.
Whatever you wear, it’s time to say hello to hooch again. See you at The Last Speakeasy.