Benjamin B. Green-Field, the “Mad Hatter” designer behind the hat label Bes-Ben, was born in Chicago in 1897. Hats were in his blood, since both of his parents had worked as milliners. 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 made 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.
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! 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, using everyday objects like kitchen utensils, cookie cutters, ice tongs, and kitchen towel fabric, trimmed fetchingly 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, 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 many thrifty “customers” who had been eagerly awaiting their chance to capture their very own glamorous or wacky Bes-Ben creation.
Vintage Bes-Ben hats are sought after by modern-day hat aficionados, due to their quirky designs and highly collectible status. 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.”
Written by Amy Mayberry/vivavintageclothing.com