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Find yourself a hat for all seasons, all reasons

If you are in Portland, Oregon and you catch a glimpse of a woman elegantly dressed in period clothing, with a stunning hat to top the ensemble, don't worry that time has escaped you, it's simply Lu Ann Trotebas, the owner and executor of the largest hat museum in the U.S.

By Ingrid Floyd

Lu Ann Trotebas strolls down a street in Portland, Oregon, headed to a beautiful rose garden. She is decked head-to-toe wearing an Edwardian-age blue dress – flattering her small waist – and a wide brim hat trimmed with flowers and ribbons. Men tip their hats at her. Women compliment Trotebas, so impressed that someone has thought to dress up in this modern time. She feels comfortable in this vintage clothing. It is her style.

Hats, Hats, and More Hats

Trotebas is the owner and executive director of the largest hat museum in America, which

Lu Ann Trotebas

Lu Ann Trotebas owner and operator of the largest hat museum in the U.S. (All photos submitted)

showcases a collection of approximately 2,000 hats. Trotebas is an unusual person in the 21st century, but so is the museum with its history and unusual hats. It is a must-see attraction on the West Coast.

Recently renovated, the museum is now open and taking reservations. Tours are available for reservations through the Airbnb Experience [] or by calling 503-319-0799. Per its website [], the museum is also a research and resource facility for theatrical productions, colleges, universities, and historical societies.

The museum is in the largest house on Ladd Avenue in Ladd’s Addition, the neighborhood development that William S. Ladd, an early Portland mayor and banker, planned in 1897. The house, built in 1910, is as quirky as some of the current hats that are now on view inside. Its doors hang backwards. There is a secret hiding place, pocket doors, a dumb waiter, and the only furnace damper is still attached to the library wall.

Mind and Marvel of Milliners

Mrs. Rebecca Reingold, a trained milliner from Russia, moved into it in the early 1900s. The last Reingold left the house more than 60 years ago. It was abandoned in the 1970s for five years, but funny coincidences happen in life. A hat fancier named Alyce Cornyn-Selby bought the house, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Cornyn-Selby was unaware of its previous owner. HGTV, noting that both owners loved hats, decided to run a feature on the museum on the show “If Walls Could Talk.”

Trotebas met Cornyn-Selby about 20 years ago when Cornyn-Selby walked into Trotebas’ antique mall. Trotebas says that Cornyn-Selby was striking with a turquoise top, white pants, knee high boots, and a flowing silk scarf. They forged an everlasting friendship, working hard on the museum until Cornyn-Selby’s death five years ago.

Trotebas recalls, “Alyce was passionate about hats.”

Fashionable and Fun

Hat display

One of many hat displays on view in the Portland, Oregon hat museum

So is Trotebas, who was in the high fashion business before coming to Portland, reveals, “The first hat I owned was an Easter Bonnet when I was five years old. I still have it. I have always loved vintage clothing and have collected it for 40 years.”

The museum is a non-profit business, so primarily Trotebas buys her hats from thrift shops. She will go overseas and come back through airport security wearing several hats and carrying them, a humorous sight to onlookers. Trotebas has acquired most of her hats in England, Scotland, France, and America. Cornyn-Selby also traveled the world in adding to her collection.

One unusual hat, although not vintage, that Cornyn-Selby had to have was an alpine mountain-looking hat that she had seen in an old National Geographic magazine. Trotebas searched all over the internet to find out who crafted it and found a gentleman in Romania who made them out of these big, round, flat mushrooms found on trees. He treated the mushroom with potash and some solution. He pounded it with a hammer and beat it into a flat fabric. Trotebas describes, “It feels like suede. The hat will be good for 30 to 40 years. It is a man’s hat and can be worn in the rain. He made it special for Alyce.”

History of Hats

The museum’s collection of hats goes back to 1820, but the history of hats dates back 6,000 years or more. For example, ancient Greek and Roman pottery is decorated with figures wearing hats. Even commoners and freed slaves might wear a brimless, close-fitting hat made of felt or leather, although it was normal at that time for heads to be left uncovered. As a reminder of just how ancient the hat tradition is, think of the Roman god Mercury (known to Greeks as Hermes), who, beginning in the 4th century BC, is often portrayed wearing winged shoes and a winged hat.

Over time, with hat brims getting bigger, more styles become possible. The French popped a side up, producing the cavalier hat. Other people from other countries would add their own touches to the hat, from putting two sides up, as the Knights of Columbus did, to three sides up, like the famed three-cornered (tricorn) hat used by colonials ... and pirates.

While hat history and the different types of hats worn across the world and through recent centuries could fill many books, the Lu Ann Hat Museum focuses on many of the European and American hats worn from the early 19th century onward.

Hats Create Connections

Trotebas shares one of the museum’s more unusual examples: a London straw top hat. She relates the legend that the boater hat finds its origins in the top hat. Because the wind and choppy water resulted in boaters losing their hats, they decided to chop the tall hats down.

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The hats with a lower profile stayed on.

Early on, history shows women mostly wearing veils. Later, wearing bonnets became the norm. Women’s hats in Europe and America in the Victorian age, and some during King Edward VII’s reign, were decked out with flourishes of feathers and flowers. Even after losing Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, wearing mourning black for 40 years, might wear a well-adorned black hat.

Trotebas’ favorite unusual hat in the museum was made in 1905, and is all black with black real ostrich plumes. She explains, “It is constructed of thin, black wire coated by fabric. Netting is laid across it. It weighs nothing. Interestingly enough, it's very unusual to find one from that period, not dusty, like new, and in the original box. It is perfect, like never worn. The brim is covered with black velvet. If the museum burns down, this is the hat I am going to grab.”

Hat Impact on Birds Leads to Audubon Society

Feeding the demand for feather-decorated hats during the 19th century proved deadly. There were more than 400 “feather establishments” in Paris alone that served the fashion industry. People wore hats adorned with clipped wings and even entire taxidermy birds. Many bird species were brought to the brink of extinction, and several actually became extinct as a result of feather fashion trends.

Something had to be done. In 1896, Boston socialites Harriet Hemenway, an avid bird-watcher and amateur naturalist, and Minna Hall, her cousin, called on their social circles to join together and boycott the feather trade. Their informal society for the protection of birds would come to be called the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

In 1889, Emily Williamson at her home in Manchester, England, founded the Society for the Protection of Birds. The rules of the Society were simple: Members will discourage the wanton destruction of birds and interest themselves protecting them, and that lady-members will not wear the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food (excepting the ostrich).

Alternate Option

As an alternative to wearing real feathers, the Audubon Society produced an unusual hat as an alternative featuring no feathers, except from such plentiful domesticated birds as cockerels, geese and ducks, for women to wear. They called it the “audubonnet,” but few wore it. The museum has a hat that is decorated with a ribbon that looks like a feather. Trotebas says, “Ours doesn’t have a label. It looks like one hat sewn over another.”

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King Edward VII succeeded Queen Victoria in January 1901, after the Widow of Windsor’s passing. No longer overshadowed by a royal in mourning, English milliners created hats with more gaiety.

Trotebas explains, “It was party time. Edward said, ‘Enough with the mourning.’ He was a clothes horse. Everything was over-the-top clothes, architecture, etc. The world was at peace.” Hats had wide brims with lots of flowers, bunches of cherries, berries, and ribbons. The museum has the biggest showing of the Edwardian Era hats of any similar hat museum in America.

Popularity of Hats in America

When King Edward died in 1910, the Ford Motor Company was in full swing, mass-producing the Model T. This rise of the automobile culture required a change of hats. Trotebas explains, “A person couldn’t drive with a big hat blowing off.” So this began the period of the bell-shaped hat, the cloche. (“Cloche” French for “bell.”) The snug-fitting hat with hardly a brim was fashionable from 1908-1933. Trotebas adds, “You couldn’t have a plain cloche. The cloche is not my favorite hat, but some of them had exquisite embroidery. The museum showcases one with silk, fuzzy bachelor buttons.”

America was cut off from European fashions during World War I and World War II. Milliners in Manhattan took to designing their own creations. Lilly Dache, a French-born American milliner, was one of the most famous hat designers of the time. Trotebas says, “In the ’40s, she was so popular that every woman at that time wanted her hat. Because she was so successful, she bought land in New York City and built a nine-story building in downtown Manhattan.” Trotebas says that Dache’s shop was so famous and so popular that there were rooms for hats for just blondes and rooms for brunettes.

Dache endorsed cars, televisions, coffee, chocolates, and other products with her hats. But, what made Dache’s endorsements even more unusual was that in the ads, the drawing of Dache’s hat design was sometimes larger than the picture of the product that was supposed to be the focus of the ad – even larger than a car image. Trotebas says, “Dache was the Michael Jordan of her time.”

Evolution of an Accessory

After World War II, Americans experimented with different types of material. The museum owns a peculiar brown satin hat on which the top forms a round “chimney.” Trotebas reports seeing it in a different color, so it was actually produced for the market.

One of the milliners who made the weirdest, wildest hats was Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian fashion designer living in Paris. The museum displays a Schiaparelli hat adorned with ribbons hand-sewn all around the crown.

Trotebas says, “[Schiaparelli] is known more for her unusual clothes than hats. She was a tiny dynamo with a difficult name.” She made a hat with Salvador Dali that resembled a lamb chop, and another she crafted herself featuring a shoe worn backwards on top of the head.

Friendship Forged Through Hats

Hat shops used to be on every corner like Starbucks today, says Trotebas. Few people wear hats now to highlight their face unless you are in Portland or at the Kentucky Derby. When Cornyn-Selby was alive, Trotebas says her friend would always tell her, “This hat needs a walk,” and the two of them would find an event to attend. Trotebas says, “Alyce was sophisticated, but also could be silly and goofy. She made a hat that is just one big pink rose. Portland is the “City of Roses.” Cornyn-Selby designed a “Train of Thought” hat where a wind-up train goes around in the window of a top hat. She also crafted one out of black and white movie strips.

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Not to be outdone by her friend, Trotebas fashioned a hat for a Mad Hatter Party which has a 2 1/2-foot brim.

Rest assured, if you join Dache, Schiaparelli, Cornyn-Selby, and Trotebas, in creating and enjoying fine and fanciful hats, you’ll be in fine and fashionable company. 

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