Dressed for Success
Photos by Steve Bracci
aradise is just down the road from the Monte Sano School in Augusta. There in a modest backyard, tropical lemon trees and grapefruit trees hang with golden fruit; asparagus, eggplant and green peppers in neat beds beg to be picked and brought to the table. Flowers like pink confections bloom on a passion vine. Four chickens demurely patrol their little coop, feast on leftovers, fertilize the soil and produce four perfect eggs a day.
Just beyond those clucking ladies stands a porch twined with jasmine and colored lights leading to a shed, once a garage, but now with new bamboo flooring and freshly painted walls a studio. Here artist Elizabeth Tudor tries to redeem the drably casual world, devoid of class or style, that slumps down the corridors of the 21st century.
One hat at a time.
She’s wearing one today, a simple straw hat, trimmed with straw braid and handmade silk flowers, with a round brim that cups downward all the way around in a perfect circle. It complements her navy blue dress and thin white belt. This interview in a converted shed has suddenly become an occasion worthy of dressing up a little.
It’s amazing what a hat can do.
“I’ll make a hat for a lady who doesn’t usually wear one, but she’s going to a wedding or a party or a special occasion. Afterwards she’ll email me and say, ‘I never felt so pretty, I never had so many compliments.’ It’s almost like wearing your high heels. You stand taller, you’re more erect. People notice you. But with the loss of wearing hats we’ve had a slide in the way we carry ourselves. We’ve become such a casual society.
“We don’t dress any more. It used to be that you covered your head when you came into a church. Not any more. And I think our casualness started with dress, then it went from dress to speech, then how we carry ourselves, how we converse with each other. If you ever people-watch you’ll notice this...laxness. I think the way people dress really does affect that.”
If you are now picturing a blue-haired doyenne nostalgic for the Victorian mores of her aristocratic girlhood, you’ve got it all wrong. Tudor is young, irreverent, pretty, the product of a typical middle-class Augusta childhood. A tomboy with four brothers, she grew up wearing cowboy boots and an Atlanta Falcons jersey. (She outgrew that stage; nowadays she enjoys occasionally strutting around in a Wonder Woman costume.) She went to Thomson High School and then got a nursing degree from MCG. Her husband, Charlie, is principal at Goshen Elementary and their son, Sam, is a fifth grader at C. T. Walker.
But for some reason she always loved hats. “I grew up watching Turner Classic Movies. And I especially loved hats from the ’40s—those tailored lines with the clothes they wore, they really had it right. But it’s hard to pinpoint my favorite. At one point in my life I’d wear only one kind of hat. But now I’ll put anything on my head. And I can get away with it—it’s my job!”
Tudor’s first really expensive hat was a gift. When she took it out for its second season, it was damaged. She called a milliner to have it repaired. “Why don’t you just learn how to do this?” the milliner suggested. So she did.
That was about five years ago. Today she makes all kinds of hats: hats for weddings, hats for funerals, hats for the Kentucky Derby, has for Aiken’s Triple Crown, casual hats for winter, summer hats for the beach, even hats for Pickles, her favorite clown. Most of her customers learn of her by word of mouth.
“Every hat is a work of art. I don’t make the same hat twice.” It might be made of straw or felt or wool or sinamay or feathers or even plastic fibers or paper materials. She blocks it, steams it, stiffens it, wires it, blocks it again. Then she trims it, hand-sewing everything—no glue, no sewing machine. She makes her own flowers of silk or synthetics or feathers. Anything can be part of a hat. She’s used men’s ties for hatbands, sewed a grandmother’s earrings into a bridal piece. One friend from Chattanooga sends her “random interesting stuff” and says, “Make me something out of this.” A hat can take one to three weeks to complete.
“Let me tell you about hats in history,” she says. “In the 1500s, Milan was the fashion Mecca of Europe. Haberdashers went there from France and England for the finest ribbons and trimmings.” Milan. Milliner. Get it? Milliners were originally Milaners.
Through history hats have served, first, as protection from sun or cold and, beyond that, as symbols of social standing or position. Their styles changed with the fashions of hairdos, dress and function. But head coverings for both men and women were pretty much a constant until the 20th century and the automobile. The Model T and its descendants pretty much doomed the elegant coiffure and extravagant hats of the turn-of-the-century Gibson Girls. You couldn’t ride in a car with a hat like that on. Then in the ’20s women shortened their skirts and whacked off their tresses and started wearing cloches, hats that hugged the skull, as a sign of their liberation. With the men off fighting World War II in the ’40s, women went to work in factories and riveting helmets were more appropriate than hats.
Women liked the world beyond their domestic walls. So while they continued being wives and mothers, they also stayed in the workplace. They had to give up something, so out went what now seemed archaic elements of female fashion. Goodbye, hats. Goodbye, elegance.
“But some people always kept up the tradition.” Black women did. And hats are still hugely popular in Britain—who can forget the millinery potpourri at Will and Kate’s wedding?—and in Chicago, New York, even Texas, and both coasts. But not, Tudor says sadly, in Augusta or the South in general. (There are, of course, exceptions, as any Aikenite will point out.)
Nevertheless, Tudor continues undaunted, leading by example. Oh, she jogs in her sweats and her Angry Birds cap and there’s a time for jeans and T-shirts, but when it’s appropriate to dress, she dresses. On Sundays, she walks to the pew as if church were a special occasion, wearing a dress that’s simple but elegant, her head crowned by some whimsical or delicate flight of fancy that her hands fashioned.
“I had a teacher in the seventh grade—Jacqueline P. Abbot, she was my English teacher—and she used to tell us, ‘Wear your nicest outfit on test day so you’re dressed for success.’ Coco Chanel always looked her best because she said you never knew if today might be the day that you meet your destiny. So people always tease me about dressing up, but you never know: today might be the day I meet my destiny.”