St. Catherine of Alexandria
New York City’s third annual celebration of St. Catherine Day, the Patron Saint of Milliners, kicked off at 5 PM this year on Thursday, November 18. The Milliners were joined by other hat enthusiasts, me included, at the Milliner’s Synagogue, 38th & 6th Ave. After donning our most festive hats, we joyously paraded up to 5th and 55th.
St. Catherine was born during the height of the Roman Empire into a noble family. After converting to Christianity, Catherine decided to persuade Emperor Maximinus that worshipping false gods and killing Christians was a bad idea. The Emperor responded with a siege of scholars and philosophers to challenge her beliefs. Catherine easily converted most of them, which was not well received by the Emperor; those converted were immediately sentenced to death. Catherine was then arrested, beaten, and jailed. Enter the Emperor’s wife, Augusta, accompanied by the head of the Emperor’s military along with 200 troops. Catherine had little difficulty converting all of them, but unfortunately they perished, as well, and Catherine was condemned to die on the wheel, a barbaric contraption used to deliver a very painful and slow death. When Catherine touched the wheel, it just shattered! Completely incensed, the Emperor had Catherine beheaded. Legend has it that angels descended from heaven and carried her body to Mt Sinai. Another legend is that Maximinus offered to marry her if she gave up her religion, which she refused to do, proclaiming her fidelity to Jesus Christ, her “Heavenly Bridegroom,” and thereby dying pure and untouched. Catherine became St. Catherine, the patron saint of unmarried women, students, philosophers, and artisans who work with wheels, including Potters and Milliners.
The French were the first to pay homage to St Catherine, of course! On November 25th, it is the custom for unmarried women over the age of 25 to pray to St Catherine for a husband. The French say that before a girl reaches 25, she prays: “Donnez-moi, Seigneur, un mari de bon lieu! Qu’il soit doux, opulent, libéral et agréable!” (Lord, give me a well-situated husband. Let him be gentle, rich, generous, and pleasant!”) After 25, she prays: “Seigneur, un qui soit supportable, ou qui, parmi le monde, au moins puisse passer!” (Lord, one who’s bearable, or who can at least pass as bearable in the world!”) And when she’s pushing 30: “Un tel qu’il te plaira Seigneur, je m’en contente!” (“Send whatever you want, Lord; I’ll take it!”). In turn, other women would participate to acknowledge these unfortunate and unmarried young ladies, referred to as “Catherinettes.” The Catherinettes would send notes to all their friends and plead for their friends to make them a hat. Traditionally the hats were made in the colors yellow (faith) and green (wisdom), but mostly it is a parade of wild and outrageous hats, providing the perfect opportunity for Milliners to showcase their talent. The Catherinettes would don their bonnets and parade in unison to 140 Rue de Bac in Paris, where they would pray to St Catherine to find them a kind, rich, and handsome husband.
The clever Milliner Guild of NYC has taken the charge by organizing their own march to showcase their fabulous workmanship and include some merriment along the way. As mentioned, I was fortunate enough to be invited along this year. Everyone wore a unique chapeau, and most of the Milliners wore extravagant cocktail hats adorned with feathers, bows, and beads. There were also several fedoras and top hats. I wore a cloche with a modern edge made out of beaver with layers dyed in turquoise and chartreuse. While this was not necessarily a choice I would normally make for myself, since the whole idea was to draw attention to the group, I was more than happy to wear it.
The group embarked at around 5:30, heading uptown with a stop in Bryant Park. The park was awash in wintertime activities, including an ice skating rink with several skaters who were quite adept and a couple of others learning to maneuver their skates over the ice. We were photographed as a group in front of the rink. The Milliner’s Guild had two professional photographers who walked with us and shot photographs along the way. We picked up a couple of admirers and completed the walk at the statue of Atlas. Ellen Christine had made a laurel crown for Atlas, which never quite made it to his head, but did make it to his knee.
The group then finished at a local tavern where we drank champagne and nibbled on hors d’oeuvres. I had a chance to chat with some of the members about their desire to get their wares out to the public. Hats seem to be everywhere in fashion magazines, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to actual sales. The other interesting fact I came away with was that even though Milliners would like to expand their business, they are all wary of Barney’s and Macy’s. Apparently a fellow Milliner was doing quite well and selling wholesale to both Barney’s and Macy’s; the problem was, they wouldn’t pay her. Both companies are in and out of chapter 11, and their fellow Milliner lost her business and loft in Soho. It’s tricky business doing business in the fashion industry; you have to be an insider to really know whom to do business with.
My evening wound down around 9 PM since I had a train to catch. So I reluctantly gave Ellen her hat back and found, to my surprise, that my hair hadn’t been totally flattened by wearing a hat for four hours! Bidding farewell to the revelers, I jumped in a cab heading towards Penn Station after a fun evening of making new friends and playing dress up for a couple of hours. I am now coveting the leopard print Hamburg that is on display in Ellen Christine Millinery, even though I’m not quite sure where would I wear it. But then, Ellen’s stirring battle cry rings in my ears: “Just WEAR IT!” I might just get it after all!