Hats off to Bess Truman!

Bess Wallace Truman, age 13, in elaborate straw hat (ARC 6233736)

Today’s guest post comes from Tammy Kelly, archivist and hat aficionado at the Truman Presidential Library.

I admit it—I love hats. I have several vintage hats in my closet, but I find them challenging to wear because sometimes, I just don’t know how to wear them. People no longer wear hats on a regular basis, and you have to be careful how you wear them so that you avoid looking like you’re wearing a costume to work.

Bess Wallace Truman lived during a time when women regularly wore hats when going out in public, and as the granddaughter of a prominent family in Independence, MO, she always wore nice clothes. Mary Paxton Keely, her childhood friend, recalls that “Bess wore what the rest of us did; the difference was that she always looked more stylish than anyone else we knew.” She goes on to say that “Bess always had more stylish hats than the rest of us did, or she wore them with more style.”

One of the earliest photographs (above) of Bess wearing a hat demonstrates this interesting sense of style—it looks like she’s wearing a flag or a model ship on her hat! Sadly, this hat is not the museum collection of the Truman Library. The library has about 55 hats that belonged to Bess Truman, most of which she wore during her husband’s presidency from 1945 to 1953, and some hats from the post-Presidential years.

As Bess grew older, and her husband entered the public eye, her style became more conservative. Bess once told Harry’s cousin Ethel Noland that “a woman’s place in public is sit beside her husband, be silent, and be sure her hat is on straight.” Conservative, however, does not mean unfashionable. Bess kept up with changing styles as much as any lady of her age would, and there are hats in the Truman Library collection from the 1960s that demonstrate the influence of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her pillbox hats.

First Lady Bess W. Truman at a party given by journalist Esther Van Wagoner Tufty in Washington, D.C. in honor of India Edwards, Executive Director of the Women's Division of the Democratic Party. From left to right: Margaret Truman, Esther Tufty, India Edwards, Eda (Mrs. Charles) Brannan, and Mrs. Truman. (ARC 6233754)

One of my duties is to verify the work that volunteers and interns do entering descriptions into our photograph database, so I work on our photo collection almost every day. In a small group of photos that came from the manuscript collection of the Executive Director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party, I came across the photo above of the Bess Truman and India Edwards: I knew I HAD to do something great with this photo—that feather hat was too amazing to go by without some recognition! We had hundreds of photos of Bess Truman wearing hats in our photo collection, enough that we have an entire public program that we present every year on her birthday.

These two things inspired me to create a theme day for the Truman Library’s Facebook page, showcasing a different great hat photo every week. I called our weekly feature “Millinery Monday” and began gathering great photos of Bess and others wearing noteworthy hats. About 70 percent of the photographs we featured showed Bess in hats. The remaining 30 percent were ones that were just too good to pass up, like this one of Princess Margaret (below).

It's not Bess Truman, but this photograph is from the Truman Library holdings: Princess Margaret at Caltech in 1965, wearing a fabulous hat. (ARC 6233740)

And now you can see all of our Millinery Monday feature photos in one place, on the National Archives Flickr page! Knowing the passion of the Flickr community for great photography, I hope that these photos can find an even bigger audience among people who have an appreciation for fashion, headwear, and photos that tell wonderful stories.


One thought on “Hats off to Bess Truman!

  1. I adore hats and wear them to church on Sunday. Mrs. Truman wore a variety of adorable “ladies” hats in public. Some of the hats portrayed above were quite jaunty and upgraded an otherwise plain suit or coat.

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