Monday, December 21, 2009

Milliner Monday: Bes-Ben

Today's milliner duo holds a special place in my heart. A couple of years back I stumbled upon millinery gold at the Chicago History Museum. On display was a little hat topped with miniature pillows. It was love at first sight.

Dubbed “Chicago's Mad Hatter” Benjamin Green-Field paired with his sister Bess to create the millinery label Bes-Ben and opened a store in 1919. Bes-Ben's whimsical creations were worn by the wealthy and famous including such ladies as Lucille Ball, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich. The hats would often feature multiple “miniatures” of things including dogs, owls, cigarettes, palm trees and lobsters to name a few. He created a hat topped with real razor blades for Heda Hopper to wear to the film premiere of “The Razor's Edge.” In deference to WWII and rationing, hats were created from kitchen utensils, napkin rings and sponges.

The exclusive hats were priced from $37- $1000 and sold well even during the depression. Famously every summer Bes-Ben would clean house of old inventory with a special $5 sale. Starting at 2am Mr. Green-Field would toss the sale hats out to a waiting crowd. In the 1960s demand for the hats declined, but today they remain highly collectible. In recent times one Bes-Ben hat sold to a collector for over $18,000.

I was delighted to find that my very own Indianapolis is home to many special Bes-Ben pieces. The Indianapolis Museum or Art houses the following treasures:

"horses" hat

"bullfighters" hat

"hats" hat

"dogs" hat

"swans" hat

and one of my personal favorites: "corn" hat

Bes-Ben hats are sure to put a smile on my face and remind me why I love hats. I hope you love them too!


redhedgingerbread said...

Wow!! these are all so cool, I very much like the swan and little dog hats.

Mary R said...

If you liked the "millinery gold" museum hat displays I'd love to invite you to join me in the real treasure hunt, the business and personal papers of Benjamin Green-Field.Lucky I live in a Chicago suburb and can run over to peruse the collection when the spirit strikes. I only made it there once this month, but last month I chose that over the After Thanksgiving sales.
I was beginning to think there was only one other devotee out there, the former CHM curator ELizabeth Jachimowicz, who is documenting every Bes Ben she can. She is the living BB "millinery gold" story teller.
The Indianapolis collection is a delight, and hopefully all can be on display. Are any on display currently? I couldn't tell when I last tried looking at thier website. It would make a trip down Rt 65 a major temptation, once the roads have a sring thaw.
Keep up the great work with the blog, I'll be adding mine to the world on 1/1/2010.

Mary Robak said...

Terrific blog, and terrific hats. If you'd like more millinery gold come on back to Chicago and explore the history of Benjamin Green-Field, as close to first hand as one can get. Luckily I live in a suburb and for the past year regularly peruse his personal and business papers in an effort to soak up that wonderful world myself. I was beginning to think I am the only devotee, outside of the world authority, Elizabeth Jachimowicz, a former CHM curator. She actively documents each and every hat she finds. It was a pleasure to even be in the same room as she worked on over 80 from a private collection this year.
The Indianapolis collection is wonderful and it would be terrific to see the entire group, but do not know if any are on display. That could make a trip down Rt65 worth waiting for a spring thaw.
Keep blogging. On 1/1/10 I hope to roll mine out as well.
Happy New Year!