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Philadelphia hatmaker makes history

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

A local hatmaker has become part of history. Mae Reeves ran hat shops on South Street and in West Philly for nearly 60 years, and now her hats have been accepted into the Smithsonian Institute. Her hats were the epitome of African-American fashion.

Ella Fitzgerald came by. So did Eartha Kitt. In the 50’s everybody wanted a Mae Reeves hat.

“What makes a good hat? The right hat for the right face. The face has to be right to accept a certain hat. That was why I was in the business for so long – they wouldn’t let me retire,” says Reeves.

The Smithsonian collected dozens of Reeves hats – along with hatmaking tools and shop furniture. But it’s not just the stuff, it’s Reeves herself: an African American female entrepeneur at a time when all three of those circumstances could be considered a liability. Local fashion business owner Sarah Van Aken says being from Philadelphia didn’t make it easier.

“Someone in fashion to do that in a city that was not known for fashion – and to be an African-American woman doing that with children – things that would be insurmountable for most people. It’s pretty amazing,” says Van Aken.

Directors at the Smithsonian say Reeves’ hats represent the dignity of a people who were often oppressed. The hats will be included in the National Museum of African American History, to open in Washington DC in 2015.

One Comment

  • Vernon Franks says:

    Very nice story. Ms Reeves might have been the pioneer in Ladies hats however, My late
    grandmother Ann Franks had to be a strong
    second. I have documentation that Like Ms. Reeves, Ann Franks was milliner and business owner of ladies hats in the 50s, 60s, and early 70,s in the city of Philadelphia. Ann Franks hosted numerous fashion shows in and around Philadelphia. Ms. Reeves might even remember my grandmother as they were in the same business. Ann Franks hosted two majors shows at the Latin Casino featuring Ella Fitzgerald in 1962 and Nat King Cole in 1963.
    Both shows had a fashion show fearuring hats by Ann Franks.

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