California Millinery Supply Co.
When a curious bowler hat-shaped restaurant opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926, it didn’t signal the beginning of Los Angeles’ relationship to hats, but, intentional or not, it did convey a preoccupation with fashionable headgear during that time. For instance, in this giant architectural chapeau, Hedda “The Hat” Hopper was often found plotting her next gossip column next to fashionably hatted patrons. But by the time the original Brown Derby closed its doors in 1980, its visitors had long stopped wearing hats. Whatever poetic correlation there may be between the rise and fall of the Brown Derby and the popularity of hats in Los Angeles and beyond, for a time in the 20th century hats were all the rage. Millinery and hat-wearing was never exclusive to Los Angeles, but the city found itself uniquely situated for design and manufacturing in the 1930s and 1940s. The numerous millinery shops that once saturated Downtown are now long gone, but one relic of that fashionable era still remains. Walking into the California Millinery Supply Co. is like stumbling into a millinery time capsule where its craft—and, quite literally, its products—are from another era.
Before the California Millinery Supply Co. opened sometime between 1937 and 1939 (there are several sources with conflicting dates), the west coast was not thought of as a great center of fashion and design. Not until Los Angeles held its first manufacturer and garment exhibition in 1921, which transformed into the renowned “Market Week” in the mid-1930s, was the full extent of the creativity and craft of LA design put on display. The Los Angeles and Hollywood Millinery Guild was formed in 1938, and that same year, they prepared exhibits for throngs of wholesale buyers in partnership with six other apparel and manufacturing guilds.
As Market Week continued to grow through the 1930s and 1940s, so did LA’s millinery industry. 1938’s Market Week saw expanded programming and lectures including “The Influence of the Screen on American Fashions,” and “The Fashion Magazines Turn Their Eyes on California,” while the Los Angeles and Hollywood Millinery Guild co-sponsored a gala fashion show. That same year, millinery took center stage. The Los Angeles Times wrote:
To the thousands of new millinery creations finished in time for display during the Los Angeles Fall Market Exposition which opened last Monday, yesterday were being added special shapes and designs as buyers from many regions flocked to the showrooms. The millinery exhibits in the showrooms of the hat-making center bounded by Broadway, Hill, Seventh and Ninth Sts., are but one phase of the fall exposition to which at least 7000 buyers have flocked from all the English-speaking nations.
Around this time, The California Millinery Supply Co. was counted among the millinery shops in the “hat-making center,” and located on the 3rd floor of 718 S Hill Street, where it remained until about 1986. Albert Kaplan founded the business along with his wife, Esther, and as his 1980 obituary acknowledged, grew from Kaplan “taking supplies to customers in his station wagon… to become a Los Angeles merchandising institution that provided movie and television studios with hard-to-find period props.” In the 1930s when hats and their many styles and adornments were in their heyday, and as Los Angeles became “an important millinery market for the entire nation,” California Millinery Supply Co. and it’s peers found themselves uniquely positioned for success. Pete Weyman, Secretary of the Los Angeles and Hollywood Millinery Guild reflected:
The Southland’s reputation as the center of sports and outdoor life makes us the logical resource for sport hats—and we take advantage of this opportunity by creating the most colorful casual headwear turned out anywhere in the country. Furthermore, the glamour of the cinema colony is attached to our product. Consequently, we are also expected to turn out extreme, picturesque millinery. Because of these twin appeals we anticipate that millinery buyers from every leading city in the country will attend our Biltmore showings to view what new trends in hats California is launching for the coming season.
California’s millinery and apparel design and manufacturing business was further solidified in 1940, when the onset of WWII largely cut off the US from foreign imports. Despite the turmoil occurring in Europe, in June 1940, Market Week saw another overwhelming turnout. The Millinery Guild once again sponsored a fashion show, this year at the Biltmore Hotel and in conjunction with the Associated Apparel Manufacturers of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Coat and Suit Manufacturers Association. C.J. Meinhardt, then-President of the Associated Apparel Manufacturers, pointed to the War as further reason to look west for design and manufacturing, and why “it is our responsibility to build up here in Los Angeles an authentic American fashion center to supplant foreign sources of inspiration which are now cut off.” In July 1941, several months before the US was drawn into WWII, military-influenced hats showed up on the runway. At the Millinery Guild’s style show and gala at Florentine Gardens, the LA Times found that:
The gods of war are hovering over milady’s boudoir in Los Angeles… From buttons and belts to colors and silhouettes, the war gods have cast their shadows on the styles to come as the biggest Fall Fashion Openings to date opened their three-day festivities with the dinner and style show… the military motif which carried through the collections like a scarlet thread woven against a gray field.
And while we can’t exclusively point to the US’ own entrance into the war as the turning point in the eventual decline of hats, it did create a precarious intersection of shifting modes of transportation, gender expression, and class, that would go on to affect hat-wearing long-term. For certain populations, however, hats remained popular during the War. In December 1941, the same month that the US formally entered the War, Sharon Douglas, a “film player,” was crowned the California Millinery Queen, and was selected to reign over the LA and San Francisco Millinery Guilds’ spring shows. Douglas was thrilled with the honor and shared that “[h]ats are the most important part of my wardrobe, and I always wear California hats because of their originality and dash.” And in 1943, the LA Times marveled at Market Week during wartime: “California originality of design is as apparent today as in prewar days with the Los Angeles and Hollywood Millinery Guild, the San Francisco Millinery Guild and the Ten Millinery Men presenting the California Spring Millinery Openings at the Biltmore.” Milliner Caspar Riese found that “ingenuity” was a substitute for rationed or unavailable materials. Riese went on to comment that “[f]eather fancies, for instance, are more artistic than in many years because production is limited and therefore instead of making more cheaper, they’re making less better.”
Similarly, in the years immediately following the end of the war, Hedda Hopper attended a spring gala at the Biltmore as the LA and San Francisco Millinery Guilds’ guest of honor in December 1946. Hopper would of course show up in one of “the stunning chapeaux that have made her famous.” And in 1949, the Guilds once again crowned their Millinery Queen, actress Irene Dunne, who enjoyed a two-page spread in The Californian magazine. Dunne “always thought the hat made the woman,” and is featured in the magazine wearing hats created for her by ten leading milliners from California.
While Dunne may have found that “the hat made the woman,” the post-war years marked the beginning of the end of popular hat wearing for average Americans. Our two California Millinery Queens were both Hollywood actresses who, like many of their peers, relied heavily on their image and appearance given their line of work. But many regular American women did a great deal of non-glamorous work during the war, allowing for the informalization of dress, while adding pants and casual separates into regular rotation in their wardrobes. This sartorial shift towards practicality, frugality, and function continued after the war. Save for the popularization of Dior’s New Look in the 1950s, this largely meant a shift away from hats as well. In his "Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of an American Style," author Neil Steinberg, acknowledges that hats were in steady decline following the War, and that “[m]en's dress-hat sales in the United States in 1960 were half of what they had been a decade earlier."
Steinberg also goes on to dispel the theory that Jack Kennedy killed hat wearing, and the long-believed myth that Kennedy did not wear a hat to his inauguration. In fact, he did wear a black silk top hat, but he removed it during his inaugural address. Kennedy reflected a modern population of young people who saw hats as non-essential. His top hat wearing seems done out of reverence to inaugural traditions, but his taking it off during the address showed that hats no longer defined the look of the modern presidency or the American people. The 1960s would continue with popular bouffant and beehive hairstyles that were not conducive to hat-wearing, and cars shrunk in size, rendering hats a nuisance.
Despite the changing millinery landscape throughout the 20th century, The California Millinery Supply Co. remained. Unfortunately we were not able to uncover any articles, photos, or advertisements from the company’s early days, but we can contextualize the growing business and clientele through our earlier examination of Market Week and the establishment of the Millinery Guild. Later, one 1973 LA Times profile went on to describe California Millinery as “a haven for professional and home milliners and seekers of fripperies. It’s a hodgepodge, a vast warehouse enthusiastically presided over by owner Albert Kaplan who calls it a ‘collector’s’ paradise.’” Today, these words still ring true. Walking into the shop in many ways feels like entering a portal to the past. Proprietress Irene Arroyo sits pleasantly behind the counter accompanied by her two cats, and she is as interested in her guests as they are in the curiosities in her shop—many of which are the same pre-war stock that Kaplan carried in his store. As described in the 1973 article:
What he wholesales and retails ranges from 75-year-old ribbon and old hat blocks to ostrich boas and finished hats. Hanging from the ceiling are buckram frames that go from shovel-mouth styling to octopus, L.B.J. style stetson, profile, Flying Nun, breton, turban, beret. You almost need a Flying Nun to find your way through the maze of some 5,000 big cartons filled with goodies that are racked up and piled up all over the place with narrow aisles between rows.
While Arroyo moved the company to Spring Street in 1987 after purchasing it from the Kaplan family, the description of the Hill and Spring Street locations are indistinguishable. Today the shop is as much of a labyrinth of fixings and fripperies as ever, including the buckram hat frames hanging throughout the shop. And don’t forget the flowers! The 1973 LA Times article spoke about how the many “flowers stashed in some of the cartons include daisies, tiger lilies, sweet peas, violets, forget-me-nots, roses, camellias. They’re imported from Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Korea, Switzerland…” Through the years, costume designers, milliners, as well as Knott’s Berry Farm, the Ice Follies, Western Costume Co., and even high school drill teams all patronized the business. Another major buyer was Disneyland; on her 100th birthday in 2011, Esther Kaplan recalled selling flowers, buckram, and feathers to Disneyland, including feathers used for the birds in The Enchanted Tiki Room.
From what we can gather, today’s cliente is largely made up of designers, amateur milliners, and curious onlookers. We actually stumbled upon the shop by accident while walking around Downtown one Saturday afternoon. We were drawn to the dusty exterior and the display cases peeking out from behind the shop’s ornate metal doors. Racks of finished hats, glass cases, boxes stacked from floor to ceiling, white buckram frames hanging decoratively, flowers, trims, fabrics, feathers, furs—all bursting from the seams of the unassuming storefront. We enjoyed getting lost among the vintage stock, and spoke at length with the owner, Irene, about LA’s fascinating history, and how they just don’t make things (and hats) like they used to.
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