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Chicago Fashion History: Vintage Hat Designer Bes-Ben

Chicago Fashion History: Vintage Hat Designer Bes-Ben

Posted by AEM on Nov 14th 2016

Inspired by a recent visit to the amazing collection of Bes-Ben hats in the costume storage area at the Chicago History Museum, I decided to share this short bio of the "Mad Hatter" of Chicago, Benjamin Green-Field!

Ivory organza with tulips trim circa late 1950s Bes-Ben hat (from our sold archives)

Benjamin B. Green-Field, the designer behind the much admired and collected hat label Bes-Ben, was born in Chicago in 1897. Mr. Green-Field and his sister (she was the “Bes” and he was the “Ben”) opened their first hat boutique on Chicago’s State Street in 1920, eventually expanding to 4 more locations in the area. At first, he created lovely, but not particularly remarkable hats, but in the early 1940s Bes-Ben’s creativity began to reach new heights, and hat history was made!

Scottie dogs and rhinestone-trimmed hearts Bes-Ben hat! Circa late 1940s (from my personal collection)

Bes-Ben designs became unusual, whimsical, even outrageous by some standards. One example was the hat made for Hedda Hopper to wear to the premiere of the film “The Razor’s Edge”: it was topped with actual razors! Bes-Ben hats from the 1940s were trimmed with a bizarre assortment of items, including: miniature bananas, pedigreed dogs, palm trees, cigarette packages, bugs, skyscrapers, and doll furniture. Bes-Ben also made war-themed hats at this time, as well as hats trimmed with everyday objects like kitchen utensils, cookie cutters, ice tongs, and kitchen towel fabric--fetchingly decorated with napkin rings!

Bes-Ben creations didn’t come cheaply. Prices ranged from $37 to $1000 at a time when the average shopper could buy a hat at Sears for around $2. For the bargain-conscious hat-lover, Bes-Ben’s famous annual sale was the way to go. At midnight on the chosen day, some of their less ornate hats would be marked down drastically, as low as $5. After 2 AM, unsold hats would be thrown out the door of the shop, to be caught by the thrifty “customers” who had been eagerly awaiting their chance to capture their very own glamorous or wacky Bes-Ben creation.

Geishas and Japanese deer with rhinestone trim, tiara-shaped circa late 40s-early 50s Bes-Ben hat (from my personal collection)

Vintage Bes-Ben hats are still sought after by modern-day hat aficionados, due to their quirky designs and highly collectible status. 

Tiny top hat! Circa 1940s Bes-Ben tilt hat with veil (from my personal collection)

During a WWII-era interview, the designer was quoted, saying “Anything that makes people laugh at this point in world history may be said to have its own excuse for being.”

Info and quotes from: The Benjamin B. Green-Field Foundation
and “A Hat Is a Hat Is a . . .” in Time Magazine, Oct. 4th

"Coral" and "turquoise" plastic flowers 1950s Bes-Ben hat with veil (from our sold archives)

Red raffia straw tilt pancake hat by Bes-Ben (from our sold archives)