Hats Off to Beloved D.C. Haberdasher

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Estella Wheeler, owner of Estella's Hats in Washington, D.C., died earlier this week. We hear Wheeler's take on hats — how to wear them, what they stand for and their place in history — in a remembrance from Michele Norris.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This week we learned about the death of one of Washington's most colorful, or shall we say, most colorfully adorned residents. Estella Wheeler, the owner of Estella's Hats, passed away on Tuesday. In life, she was part of a dying breed as a milliner who made custom hats by hand.

I visited with Estella Wheeler just before Easter 2004, when she was busy filling last-minute orders, surrounded by sequins, feathers, rhinestones and ribbons, and hats of all shapes and sizes.

Ms. ESTELLA WHEELER (Owner, Estella's Hats): And pillboxes come in about 20 styles. We got them slanting, we got them laid down. We got them sitting up. We got them tilt over.

NORRIS: Estella Wheeler knew hats. She could look at you for just a second and know exactly what hat would work and what wouldn't. She was full of ideas and advice on just how to wear a hat.

Ms. WHEELER: When you're wearing hats, you really don't need a lot of hair in your face because your hat's doing all of the talking. And when the hats are doing the talking, guess what? All you got to do is do the walking. So once you put that hat on, cock it to the side and baby, guess what? You're ready for the Lord's house on Sunday.

NORRIS: To Estella Wheeler, hats were more than just a mere fashion accessory. From childhood, she saw hats as symbols of self-respect and pride.

Ms. WHEELER: Pride, dignity. Oh, they just represent who we are. When you see the average black woman, you see her walk it with her head held high. And I'm telling you, back in the day, where we had nowhere else to go, my mother told me - she shielded us from prejudice and from all the hatred - so she only took us to church because she said any other place we could go, we weren't accepted. So we only went to God's house. And when we went, she said, this is the way the people of God and black dressed back in the day.

NORRIS: As an adult, Estella continued wearing hats to church and to the grocery store and to the Laundromat.

Ms. WHEELER: When I walk out of here, guess what? I want to look a certain way. I want people to be able to look at me and say yes, that must be a woman going somewhere special.

NORRIS: Estella Wheeler of Estella's Hats. She died Tuesday from complications during surgery. She was 62. And I can only imagine the parade of hats that family, friends and loyal customers will wear when they gather to remember Estella this weekend.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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