In honor of National Hat Day (January 15th), here is one of several fabulous hats donated by Eugenie LeMerle Riggs (1904-2003). It is a turban-style straw hat, black and tan, with an exuberant black velvet bow (it’s about eight inches tall) and a large metal-and-rhinestone pin on the front. The inside is lined with black silk. A label proclaims its origins as Zimmerman, 1111 G St, Washington.

Zimmerman was part of white Washington’s retail district, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was situated generally (though not exclusively) on G and F Streets and Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 14th Streets. (African Americans, denied entrance to these stores, had their own commercial center along the U Street corridor.) Zimmerman appears to have been a small shop, specializing in millinery. A 1908 classified ad in the Washington Post seeks a “milliner – first class” for the establishment, and a 1911 Post advertisement announces the shop’s “Fall and Winter Showing of Millinery,” including “Tailored Hats – Correct Mourning – Novelty Veiling.” (Oh, if only “novelty veiling” was still an important part of life!) So far I haven’t found much else about the shop, but the style of the hat puts it in the early 1910s or so, matching the era of these two ads.

This hat probably belonged to Mrs. Riggs’ mother, Virginia Grace Norris LeMerle (1871-1961). The LeMerles lived in Washington, D.C.; Dr. LeMerle had a medical practice at his home, and also worked at Sibley Hospital. Judging from the clothing and accessories now in our collections, most of them stylish pieces purchased at the better Washington department and specialty stores, Mrs. LeMerle passed on to her daughter a fondness for fashion. We don’t have any photos of Mrs. LeMerle, least of all one of her wearing this hat, but Mrs. Riggs donated several photos of herself in equally fabulous (and tall) hats, with outfits to match; she also noted that several of her own hats include feathers or other decorative bits borrowed from her mother’s collection.

Want to see the LeMerle ladies’ hats in person? The Historical Society is planning a big exhibit on hats and headwear for 2011 – stay tuned!

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