Sam Meyer, current patriarch of Meyer the Hatter, knows that hats are more than just accessories. “You don’t look at John Wayne’s shoes. The hat sets the piece in the movie. It sets the time and the character. It’s an identification mark,” he says.
Hats once figured largely in the wardrobes of all well-dressed men and women, and today hats are still prized accessories. A hat can be “a little piece of art that people remember,” explains Yvonne LaFleur, a skilled milliner who inherited her aunt’s hat blocks (shapes for molding hats) and has her own daughters (Mary Jane Walsh and “Stella” Elizabeth Walsh) working in her eponymous Uptown boutique with her.
LaFleur says that when she designs a hat, “I like to do it for the face. The hat must go with the face.” A hat not only offers shade, it also provides an attractive frame. Better yet, a hat can have a positive effect. “Now a lady, when she wanted a lift, she would buy herself a new hat – with a smile on her face!” she says. “Of course, new hats have always been associated with the important occasions of life – weddings, Christmas, even funerals.”
LaFleur learned to sew at a young age, living with her maiden aunts in a house where the sound of the sewing machine’s pedal provided a constant background rhythm. LaFleur’s aunts would offer her their dresses, which she would re-make for herself. “If you learn to alter something, you learn to design,” she says. One of her aunts, Alice LaFleur, had a New Orleans hat shop, the Mad Hatter, and she taught her niece to be a milliner, a maker of hats. “From her I learned how to block – how to make hats. I have over 200 of her blocks that I use periodically,” says LaFleur.
Sam Meyer also grew up with hats, but his family sold, rather than made them. “My grandfather started the shop in 1894,” he says. “At the moment, we are the oldest clothing retailer in the city. And we might be the oldest continuously operated family hat store in the country!”
“My father went into the business when he got out of the service after World War I, and I came in when I got out after World War II,” he explains. His sons, Paul and Michael, are now in the store, which Paul currently owns (“I gave it to him on my 80th birthday,” Meyer explains). Paul’s sons, Christopher and Cedric, are the fifth generation in the business.
Meyer the Hatter, located at 120 St. Charles Ave., has three floors of men’s hats in an amazing variety of styles and colors. “You have an evolving style, and that comes from the public. They tell you what they like,” Meyer says.
Pierre de la Barre, who has a beret, remembers his father buying berets from Meyer the Hatter. “A beret is very flexible, it keeps your head warm in winter, and you can fold it up and tuck it in your pocket,” de la Barre says. It is to be expected that a man would follow his father’s hat style, says Meyer: “Men will not accept a whole lot of change.”
Meyer gets inventory from around the world. “Straw hats, the Panama hat – they come from Ecuador. We get hats from France, England, China.” His extensive stock makes him a favorite of movie prop managers. “There is a movie, Inspector Gadget, and a lady called me from California wanting five different kinds of hats, and we sent them to her, right off the shelf.”
Yvonne LaFleur fondly remembers creating 200 hats for a movie, Chanel Solitaire, about the legendary Coco Chanel. She got the commission in Beverly Hills, Calif., where she and her husband, Jim Walsh, were lunching when a friend of his, producer Larry Spangler, arrived and confided his difficulty in finding headwear for his film.
“It’s my favorite project,” LaFleur says. “I delivered the hats to the movie set in Paris.”
LaFleur’s shop at 8131 Hampson St. has 10,000 square feet of space for her clothing (she does couture and weddings, also), fragrances, accessories (a special section for gloves – highly necessary in a city with debutantes) and her hats and hat-making supplies.
“I have Milan straw from Italy – it comes in a braid and is usually sewn in concentric circles,” she says. “My felts come from France – the finest fur felts. Mauboussin in France has the finest silk flowers. Feathers come from Germany and England.”
There was a time when no gentleman or lady ventured out without a hat. LaFleur credits two reasons for that changing. The election of President John F. Kennedy, who seldom wore a hat, and the Catholic church, which stopped requiring women to cover their heads in church.
However, hats are still popular. “We have every kind of hat: derbies, Western hats, cloth hats, straw hats, felt hats, everything you can dream of that a man will wear. And we have a little green sticker, ‘Meyer the Hatter’ that we put in every item,” Meyer says.
New Orleanians have some unique needs when it comes to headwear.
Besides the sale of a $400 folding opera hat to someone in a St. Patrick’s Day parade, Sam Meyer notes that the social aid and pleasure clubs annually outfit their members in matching clothing, complete with hats. “Every year they parade on a Sunday, and the hat is part of their outfit. It’s been going on about 60 years. They all have a good time.”
Yvonne LaFleur is very busy at Kentucky Derby time. “Even people who don’t go to the Derby have Derby parties,” she notes. She has adorned ladies from Mobile, Ala., (“Their Mardi Gras is older than ours, and no matter if it’s in February, they want their straw hats.”) to Florida (for Palm Beach polo matches, for example) to England, where ladies at Ascot for the races want something memorable on their heads. “We are doing hats for people going to Europe, little ‘fascinators,’ just something to sit on the top of the head – flowers, netting, feathers, something to accent the outfit.”
A location in New Orleans is ideal for the sale of hats, LaFleur explains. “Ladies are fascinated with the feminine mystique of the Southern lady,” she says. “We still have a lot of people who wear hats. The New Orleans lady dresses for the time of day. You would never say that about somebody from California or New York.”
Another reason to get a new hat: “Men love women wearing hats – there’s nothing sexier,” LaFleur says, “than a man chasing a hat that flew off a lady’s head.”