Fashion and Style

A Perfect Hat for Fall

By: Jessica Pushor
Nov 20 2015

Costume collection manager Jessica Pushor puts one of our Bes-Ben hats in the spotlight.

With the autumn chill in the air, stores are enticing shoppers with warm clothes for the fall. Hats were once a major part of a woman’s wardrobe, and here at the Chicago History Museum, we have found the perfect one for the change in seasons.

Woman’s hat of brown felt worn by Mrs. Samuel Liebman, c.1965. Gift of Mrs. Samuel Liebman, 1988.74.1. Photographs by CHM staff, unless otherwise noted.

Mrs. Samuel Liebman (née Doris Valerie Frazin), a devoted patron of the Bes-Ben millinery shop, donated this cloche-style hat to the Museum in 1988. It sits low on the head and is covered in corn appliqués and brown bows. Benjamin Green-Field, the owner of Bes-Ben, referred to Mrs. Liebman as the “Hat Lady” because she loved hats and wore them well; some of her hats were made especially for her by Bes-Ben.

For more than fifty years, Benjamin Benedict Green-Field (1898–1988) owned and operated Bes-Ben, one of the most famous millinery shops in Chicago, if not the world. Green-Field and his sister Bessie started Bes-Ben in 1919; the name of their shop was a combination of their first names. Their partnership lasted until 1939 when Bessie married and left the business.

Benjamin Green-Field with a hat maker at his shop, c. 1956. CHM, ICHi-031750

At his store at 928 North Michigan Avenue, “Chicago’s Mad Hatter” used unusual items to create spectacular and whimsical hats. Green-Field was once quoted as saying “You can’t make a hat too crazy for women to wear!” which he proved by decorating hats with lobsters, swans, miniature clocks, and bees.

Every summer, he held a sale where everything was $5, an amazing deal considering that most of his hats sold for more than $100. People would line up in the middle of the night for a chance to grab a hat flung out to the crowd by Green-Field himself. It typically took an hour and a half to empty the entire store of around 400 hats, then the shop closed for several weeks for a staff holiday. Green-Field often embarked on one of his famous around-the-world shopping trips; he is said to have been around the world more than fifty times.

A crowd outside Ben-Ben clamors for hats at 2:15 a.m., 1963. TimeLIFE, photographer unknown; CHM, ICHi-032362

As hats declined in popularity, Bes-Ben began creating and selling decorative pillows made from the exotic fabrics Green-Field purchased during his trips. He held the last $5 sale in 1964 and closed his shop for good in 1978, throwing a large party and inviting everyone to wear a hat.

Green-Field at the opening of Benjamin Green-Field/Bes-Ben on April 14, 1976, with Mrs. A. Loring Rowe (left) and Mrs. Gardner H. Stern. CHM, ICHi-069732

The Museum has hosted two exhibitions on Benjamin Green-Field. The first, Benjamin Green-Field/Bes-Ben (1976), featured more than two hundred hats. The second, The Wit and Fantasy of Benjamin Green-Field (1984), showcased pieces from his personal wardrobe and decorative home items from around the world as well as Bes-Ben hats. Today, the Museum has two spaces named for Bes-Ben—the Bessie Green-Field Warshawsky Gallery and the Benjamin B. Green-Field Gallery. Bes-Ben also has an enduring presence in our Crossroads exhibition, which features a rotating selection of its most fabulous styles.

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