It was somewhat incongruous: a cantor welcoming a bevy of artists into his synagogue and blessing them as they began their observation of a Catholic saint’s feast day . . . unless you knew that, strangely enough, hats were the glue that bound these strange bedfellows—creators, synagogue, and saint—together.
The occasion was a mid-November celebration of St. Catherine’s Day in New York, and the artists were milliners—artists who design, create, and hand-fashion head coverings of every description. They belong to the Milliners Guild, a trade association that originated in medieval Christian Europe.
Saints, along with guilds, were essential ingredients of the medieval stew. Every entity in the Middle Ages—from the state and city and guild to the king, lords, and commoners—depended on a saint for protection. French milliners had St. Catherine. In 20th-century New York, the Jews who made most of the hats satisfied their spiritual needs at the Millinery Center Synagogue.
In its glory days during the first half of the 20th century, New York’s millinery center comprised more than 600 wholesale hat manufacturers and their ancillary suppliers of trimmings, ribbons, flowers, and feathers. By 1935, two-thirds of the nation’s hatmakers thrived in a five-block area within the larger Garment District of midtown Manhattan. The hat trade employed 15,000 workers, most of whom were Jewish immigrants who commuted from their homes in the outer boroughs. The very observant among them desperately needed a local synagogue, and during the Depression they began to rent space for prayer and services. Thirteen years later, the Millinery Center Synagogue had it own building in the Millinery District.
St. Catherine, like other martyred saints in medieval art, had her own identifying attribute. She was usually depicted with part of a wheel, the instrument of her torture. Catherine was bound to a spiked wheel to break her back, but, to her tormentors’ dismay, the wheel miraculously shattered, and Catherine was beheaded instead.
A virgin herself, Catherine looked after girls and unmarried women. (Catherine’s name derives from the Greek word for purity.) In France, women who were still unmarried at age 25 or older were called catherinettes. For the saint’s feast day, they made beautiful headdresses for the saint and “capped” her statue with them. As a consequence, milliners adopted St. Catherine as their patroness.
As women’s status changed, the medieval custom of “capping St. Catherine” fell into disuse in France with everyone but dressmakers and milliners. They made elaborate hats for the single women among them. The catherinettes wore them all day on St. Catherine’s Day in the hope that the saint would help them find husbands. Their hats were often yellow and green, for faith and wisdom.
Seizing the opportunity offered by this custom, milliners parade in mid-November to celebrate St. Catherine’s Day (officially, November 25, but that date is always too close to Thanksgiving), wearing and exhibiting their creations. They capitalize on “any excuse to put on our hats and parade around,” said Linda Pagan, who founded the Milliners Guild in New York five years ago.
The Hat Shop, at 120 Thompson Street, is also Pagan’s creation. When one of the major trimmings suppliers used by the milliners closed shop, Pagan realized that her own shop would have to close as well. She thought about the 35 or 40 milliners she knew. The hatters were independent, and they didn’t know each other, but they admired each other’s work. “I corralled them all,” said Pagan, “and told them to leave their egos at the door.” The guild was born.
St. Catherine’s Parade, now in its fifth year, began at the Millinery Center Synagogue on Sixth Avenue and 38th Street. Since the later decades of the last century, the ranks of milliners and dressmakers have sharply diminished as the Garment District has been eviscerated by cheaper labor overseas. The group of about 20 milliners sporting their finery attracted attention on the street while they waited for the door to open. When the cantor arrived, they settled themselves inside to receive his blessing. “Millinery exalts the husband by making the woman look good,” he said. “Woman is the gift of God for man.” He praised the women for looking beautiful to make their husbands happy and proud. Any feminist grumbling was muffled, because the cantor was so obviously delighted and seeking to please.
Next, the group sauntered over to Bryant Park, where they took pictures and basked in the admiration of passersby. Later, they walked to Grand Central Station, where they passed out Milliners Guild buttons. And finally, drinks and dinner at the Oyster Bar.
The guild is a professional organization: The milliners are always looking for ways to promote the wearing of hats and exhibit their own confections. Linda Ashton, president of the guild, imagines a winter outing she would call “Hats on Ice,” an ice-skating party at the Bryant Park rink, with the milliners gliding by wearing their fabulous chapeaux. Wherever they go, these artists are striking and elegant, drawing the best kind of attention.