STAYING ON TOP
Gloria Manes, the hat lady
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
Gloria Manes is the New Orleans area’s undisputed “Queen of Hats,” with a houseful of some 350-plus chapeaux of every color, description and social strata packed away in boxes, behind doors and in closets in the Manes’ home. She says she had more than 365 hats prior to Hurricane Katrina, but she’s building her collection back toward those numbers – and beyond.
But with any mention of the hats she lost to “the flood,” both Manes and her daughter Terasa lower their heads and their voices take on a reverent tone.
“The large hats were in the largest boxes,” Manes says. “They were stacked up on top of each other, if they weren’t lying in the water. The water seeped up from bottom to top … like sponges. I was very careful when I did take them out of the boxes. But it didn’t matter. They were limp and for most of them there was nothing left. They couldn’t be saved. They were ruined. It was heartbreaking. Some of them I couldn’t even hold together. They just fell apart right there in my hands. Those hats – these hats – are such a big part of my life because I can look at them and remember why I bought this one or made that one … They aren’t just hats. They’re all memories.”
Not to be defeated by a mere Category 5 hurricane, when the waters subsided Gloria Manes and her husband, Maurice, had their home raised. She picked up right where she left off prior to Katrina, proudly wearing her hats in the late Germaine Wells annual Easter Parades through the French Quarter. She showed off her hats to women’s groups and she promoted the wearing of hats by showing young school kids how to make hats using painted Styrofoam cups that they presented to their moms. She still makes hats and sells them – “about 600 overall I guess,” she says. “I was able to have my car fixed three times just from the sale of the hats I made.” Even today, as she swims in a therapeutic pool at a local fitness center three times a week, heads turn when Gloria Manes walks in. They all want to see what kind of hat she has on today.
“I laugh sometimes because a lot of people don’t even know my name,” she says. “A lot of people just call me the ‘hat lady.’ But that’s OK. I like that. I had a lady tell me in church, ‘We look forward to going to church on Sunday just to see what kind of hat you’re going to wear. We’re always amazed.’ Even when I’m not wearing a hat, I keep one tucked in my car. On those rare occasions when I’m not wearing one and somebody asks me ‘Where’s your hat?’ I can honestly tell them it’s in my car.”
To be sure, Manes has hats that recall the glory days of black and white cinema: “Didn’t I see Lauren Bacall in a hat like that … yes, just like that.”
“That’s why I bought it,” the hat lady is quick to answer.
She has a leopard skin hat with matching purse (“They don’t make those any more,” she sighs.); a copy of a genuine Minnie Pearl hat replete with dangling price tag; Azalea topped hats for her forays into azalea country; hats topped off with ducks, dogs, fleurs-de-lis and enough flowers to make the folks at Bellingrath Gardens envious.
Manes’ “passion,” as she calls it, for hats comes naturally; her grandmother was a collector.
“She was from New Orleans and she was known as the ‘hat lady’ of south Louisiana,” Manes says. “She was so refined and looked so beautiful in her hats.”
Likewise, Manes’ mother, who ran the Yellow Cab Restaurant on St. Claude Avenue, was rarely without a hat.
“I graduated from Nicholls (High School) in ‘52,” Manes says. “And back then if you were a woman and you went anywhere, if you went to Canal Street, you wore a hat. I lived on St. Claude (Avenue) and as a youngster I’d take the streetcar and transfer to the Gentilly and go to Canal Street all for 7 cents. I always wore my hat and it was a wonderful time.” She continues, “I remember when I was 10 years old and I was entered into a hat contest at Maison Blanche. They took my picture. It was all so natural; so much fun. I didn’t think of going out without a hat.”
Manes bemoans the fact that, “Few women today wear hats – even in church. When I was younger, a woman wouldn’t think of going into church without a hat. Or if not a hat, just to cover her head with a delicate handkerchief to show respect.”
Still, Manes admits that, “I mostly wear hats to Mass. I used to wear them all the time. But what with today’s dress (styles) it just isn’t appropriate most of the time. I really believe that we’ve lost our sense of femininity as we lost our passion for hats. It’s really sad when people go out and don’t dress up. You can’t expect to be treated like a lady if you don’t dress like a lady.” She continues, “I just hope hats come back and are really appreciated for what they are. I hope so much that hats become fashionable again. I hope that happens before I die.”
Manes finds some joy in what she sees as a resurgence of men wearing hats (You can buy hats just like the one Don Draper wears on the television hit, “Mad Men” at most shopping centers), and she vows to trudge on, leaving the cataloging and most of the decorating of hats these days to Terasa. The two talk of some kind of exhibit of hats where “women can come in and try them on. Not just an exhibit where you look at hats, but never touch.” For Manes, the exhibit, like a good hat, would be a perfect fit.