BLOOMINGTON — In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, you’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.
So goes the opening of Irving Berlin’s ode to springtime, “Easter Parade.” The song references the Easter morning “parade” of well-dressed New Yorkers heading down Fifth Avenue from St. Patrick’s Church.
The 1880s through the 1910s saw a stunning profusion of fanciful “millinery creations”— often outsized and garish in the extreme —gracing the heads of not only fashionable women in New York and Paris, but even in places like Bloomington (“millinery” is the business of making or selling women's hats).
“Throughout this entire week we will make a special exhibit of trimmed hats and bonnets embracing all the latest metropolitan designs,” announced Bloomington milliner Seibel’s on April 20, 1886, five days before Easter.
Seibel Bros. (Oscar and Otto) became one of Bloomington’s leading hat makers and wholesale and retail sellers. Their “millinery house” occupied a three-story brick commercial building at 110 N. Main St., which is now an empty lot south of Elroy’s bar. From that location, the brothers sold hats made in-house and those purchased from afar. At one time, they employed more than 50 women to assemble hats in “making rooms” on the second and third floors.
In the fall of 1892, The Pantagraph paid a visit to Seibel’s and upon observing the hat-making process, paid special attention to the role of the trimmer. “The plain hat body is warped into various shapes by their deft hands … until it is wholly unlike its former self,” noted the correspondent. Once the hat was given its distinctive shape, all sorts of bric-a-brac could be piled atop, such as: “Corded lace, feathers, stone buckles, plumes, aigrettes, ribbons and other material” (an Easter hat would include similar trappings as well as an abundance of silk flowers).
“Today is not a whit too early to make the decision for the Easter headdress,” advised Seibel’s on March 31, 1896, less than a week before Easter. “We will have on special display 50 French patterns that are beauties, together with 300 of our own creation. Our immense store building is filled from front to rear and top to bottom with everything in millinery.”
A company circular the following year offered dozens of exotically named hat styles, including the Bonita, La Tour, Modjeska, Nemesis, Pandora, Thackeray, and even something called the Zaldivar.
Women of means and inclination in Bloomington who were “au fait” with the latest Paris and New York fashions could recognize the names of leading designers. Stephen Smith’s Sons, a Bloomington milliner, promised “newness, freshness and beauty” in its Easter 1899 showing. “Our pattern hats have achieved such a distinction that today Bloomington without Smith’s millinery would be like Paris without Caroline Reboux or Camille Roger,” read a March 29 notice referencing two “haute couture” milliners.
As always with fashion, the devil was in the details, and woe unto the lady behind the curve. On April 4, 1912, three days before Easter, A. Livingston’s & Sons touted its line of women’s hats while discoursing on the latest trends: “It is surprising what success the ‘Derby’ and ‘Sailor Hat’ is still having — it is seen everywhere in many variations — large and small — trimmed in both high and low styles — ostrich fancies, clever stick-ups, and sometimes a pair of wings, which gives a very girlish and pretty effect.”
During the 1913 Easter season, C.W. Klemm (like Livingston’s, a locally owned department store on the courthouse square), offered “charming millinery that reflects every Paris style idea,” with selections numbering in the thousands. “Phipps and Burgesser tailored hats will appeal to women who want something distinctive and individual,” read a March 22 notice. “Such a variety, there are hardly two alike — neither will you see them in any other Bloomington store.” The priciest of these hats went for $15, or the equivalent of more than $350 today.
Meanwhile, Livingston’s trumpeted its own millinery collection. “We’re ready for Easter with the greatest stock ever shown in Central Illinois,” announced the store. “We’ve increased our sales force so that we’ll be able to give all prompt attention despite the Easter rush.”
Today, the Easter rush is more like a trickle, as churchgoers forgo dressy attire in favor of ever more casual clothes. More than 300 years ago, Robert South pondered the gap between the attentions parishioners gave to their Easter dress (many) opposed to their Easter devotions (regrettably few). Turning the excitable English churchman’s observation inside out, today one can only hope the sloppiness of our dress does not suggest a corresponding approach to our devotions.