A Modern Woman…

The last person born in the 1800s recently died. Having known people who were born in that century keeps the era alive. A woman born in 1879 is featured now at Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Mabel Dodge Luhan started out in Buffalo, but she had the means to travel about the world and experience the depths. She says:

“If we are part of the color or tempo or rhythm the world is in at any time, we are alive and there is nothing of any greater significance than that…”

After reading about her bohemian community in the southwest, I went there to visit and stayed a couple time at the Taos lodge in her name, the place where she seemed to thrive best.

She inspired me to write this…

Most people may associate The J. Peterman Company “Owner’s Manual” with the Seinfeld show, but way before that in 1987, I began receiving their catalogs. The tagline read…

Traveling the world to find uncommonly good stuff.

A joy to receive, this bit of ephemera was nothing like the ordinary catalogs of LL Bean or JC Penney. The Peterman pages displayed clothing and accessories with a classic flair reminiscent of great novels and film. Instead of photographs, the items are rendered in lush inks–displayed next to poetic narratives. I looked longingly at the collection of items found in each new arrival, but never ordered the pricey goods. The Holiday 1990 issue featured The Mabel Hat.


The content read…

“The banker’s daughter from Buffalo boarded the gleaming White Star Line passenger ship to London in 1905. Mabel wore this stylish top hat made of the finest crushed cotton velvet and lined in indigo silk satin. Victorian elegance blended with a dash of modernity defines this playful collapsible model. Discreet wires are sewn into the seams so that it flattens into a circle and pops open with a snap of the wrist. Ideal for travel–the brim shields rain, wind, sleet, or snow. Mabel wore the hat tilted to one side as she roamed the streets of Paris–-drank wine with Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. A few years later, she was seen wearing the hat on the streets of Greenwich Village–often carrying bags of baguettes, brie, and burgundy in preparation for her famous artist salons. A true pioneer, never content in any one place for too long, Mabel ventured out west in a Model T. She settled in the sage and sand of the Taos desert, opened her home to artists, and married a Pueblo man. That’s when she traded her notable velvet for a straw sombrero. The Mabel Hat. Thirty-nine ninety-nine. Available in chocolate brown or licorice black.”

I’m sure that my grandmother Evelyn wore a similar hat in 1915 as she ferried back and forth from the boarding house in Hackensack, New Jersey to her job as an English teacher on Ellis Island. And didn’t the suffragettes march about wearing substantial hats such as this one?

Mabel’s top hat captured my imagination in 1990. I even pointed it out to my friend who shared my appreciation for the humorous literary text of the J. Peterman brand. One evening during that festive season, I walked up First Avenue to his Stuyvesant Town apartment for a bit of holiday cheer. We drank cognac and listened to Sinead O’Connor. I was handed a flat white box. Inside was a circle of black velvet…The Mabel Hat. It opened with a flick of the wrist. I felt a surge of “anything is possible” as I walked back down First Avenue in the lightly falling snow.

Find out more about Mabel here.

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#mabeldodgeluhan #burchfieldpenney #jpeterman