Every Day an Easter Bonnet

A man once asked me if I thought anyone would see me as a serious scholar wearing such heavy eyeliner. I am sorry now that I did not defend myself to him. But I was a young scholar then, lacking confidence. He was an old scholar, lacking good manners. People called him a curmudgeon, but I called him words that were not euphemisms for what he was. Under my breath, of course. Today if he said such a thing to me, my retort might give him a little ‘ole heart attack. But back then I was polite to my own detriment. I ignored his comment and went on with my life. In eyeliner.

Fast forward about twenty-five years.

Recently, I ran across a photograph of Jane Addams I’d never seen before. In the photo she is young, her face smooth and unlined, and her extraordinary, expressive eyes are bright, and also as yet unlined. She is wearing a hat with a curved brim, atop of which is what looks like a slouchy dark velvet adorned with GIANT chrysanthemum-like flowers, six at least, perched slightly off center. I gaped at the magnificent chapeau atop her brilliant mind, and before I could stop myself, I said out loud, to Jane Addams on my computer screen: “Oh my god, woman, how did people take you seriously in that hat!”

I covered my mouth. My eyes scanned the room as if searching for anyone who might have heard me. Shame on me. Shame, because my mind had immediately conjured the memory, for first time in years, of that old, rude, sexist scholar who dissed me for wearing eyeliner. And now I was dissing Jane Addams for wearing a hat. I know Jane Addams is dead, so it wasn’t like I could actually offend her, or offend anyone for that matter, alone as I was in my home office. But I was so mad at myself for making fun of Addams’s hat out loud with such vehemence, that I answered my own question: “Well, Stace, how does anyone take you seriously in such heavy eyeliner?”

Maybe some people don’t take me seriously in heavy eyeliner, but I am old enough and confident enough in myself and my abilities that I do not care. I’ve written books and given lectures and appeared in history documentaries in eyeliner. I am not a flashy dresser, but I like eyeliner. So what? Jane Addams was a serious woman, a determined advocate for the underprivileged, an innovative reformer, and a brilliant thinker and writer. She lived in the era of spectacular hats, and after a quick search through pictures of her, it became as obvious as the painted lines around my eyeballs that Jane Addams loved a spectacular hat. I still think she might have crossed over the milliner’s line with the chrysanthemum one, but what if she did? So what?

In 1896, Jane Addams visited Leo Tolstoy at his country estate Yasnaya Polyana, south of Moscow. When she met him that day, she was wearing a dress with extraordinary sleeves, and Tolstoy chastised her for them. In 1911, she published an account of that meeting in McClure’s, writing:

“Tolstoy, standing by clad in peasant garb, listened gravely, but, glancing distrustfully at the sleeves of my traveling gown, which, unfortunately, at that season were monstrous in size, took hold of an edge and, pulling out one sleeve to an interminable breadth, said that there was enough stuff on one arm to make a frock for a little girl, and asked me directly if I did not find ‘such a dress a barrier to the people.’ I was too disconcerted to make a very clear explanation, although I tried to say that, monstrous as my sleeves were, they did not compare in size with those of the working-girls in Chicago, and that nothing would more effectively separate me from ‘the people’ than a cotton blouse following the simple lines of the human form; that even if I had wished to imitate him and ‘dress as a peasant,’ it would have been hard to choose which peasant among the thirty-six nationalities we had recently counted in the Hull-House neighborhood.”

I guess you might say Tolstoy was kind of like the old scholar who questioned my eyeliner. Way more accomplished, of course, but still, rather rude. And Jane Addams might have been stung by Tolstoy’s comments, like I was stung, and clearly she was thinking about them fifteen years later. Yet although she most always wore plain and simple frocks, she never shied away from a magnificent hat. She worked hard and dedicated her life to helping others, so I think it rather grand she afforded herself this luxury. Jane Addams kept her face determined and serious, and I suspect a pretty hat was her smile.

In honor of the season of Easter bonnets, here are some of my favorites. And do, please, place your cursor over each image to treat yourself to the full effect. (P.S. We used that last one as the inspiration for our Jane Addams Papers Project logo).

Jane Addams was not the only serious woman who appreciated a stylish hat. Check out these women changing the world while rockin’ a posh headdress.

Now that I’ve thought about Jane Addams’s hats and my eyeliner and written this fluffy blog post, I’ve changed my mind about the chrysanthemum hat. I actually think I rather like it, all naysayers be damned.

by Stacy Lynn, Associate Editor

Notes: The Selected Papers of Jane Addams, 3:510-11; A Visit to Tolstoy, January 1911, Jane Addams Digital Edition.

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