I am often asked by collectors new to the world of vintage millinery, “Which 20th century hat designers are the most collectible?” It is a question that is at the same time easy and difficult to answer. There are so many reasons to collect hats with sub-collections ranging from colour to era to style to workmanship. Some collectors are gaga for grand Edwardian widebrims, while others lead the hunt for feathers and furs. Every collector has her favourites, of course, so there are oodles of great pieces out there – enough for everyone. What sets hats bearing the the Bes-Ben label apart is the their legendary status.
Known as the Mad Hatter of Chicago, the famous millinery label Bes-Ben is derived from the first names of brother and sister design team Benjamin and Bessie Greenfield who went into business together in Chicago C.1920. By 1938 they had moved their shop to Michigan Avenue where a prestigious clientele included Lucille Ball, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland , and Elizabeth Taylor.
Imagine being in attendance at their annual summer clearance midnight sale, when hat prices normally in the range of $37.50 to $1,000 fell to as low as $5.00. Pieces that went unsold by 2:00 a.m. were tossed into the street to be scooped up by eager scavengers.
It is reported that a single Bes-Ben hat (likely worn by a celebrity) sold at auction in 1999 for $18,400. The most collectible Bes-Ben hats are those reflecting the creators’ whimsy. As director of the Mobile Millinery Museum, I am always on the hunt for this legendary label and would love to hear from former owners as to where these darling hats where worn.