Good Life

Couple tip their hats to style

John and Georgia Madison in Madison's Hat'r store on Pugh Street in State College, Tuesday, January 20, 2009. CDT/Christopher Weddle
John and Georgia Madison in Madison's Hat'r store on Pugh Street in State College, Tuesday, January 20, 2009. CDT/Christopher Weddle

It’s hard to picture Sam Spade stucklike this.One fedora, then another, sits on the customer’s head inside the Madison’s Hat’r shop on Pugh Street in State College. For the life of him, he can’t decide — until store owner John Madison comes up with a solution.“If you don’t mind, try on my hat,” Madison says, doffing his favorite winter choice, a black Bailey fedora with a leather band. “That’s a medium. See if that fits you better.”In the end, with Madison’s help, Jason Brooks settles on a similar Dorfman Pacific model, but in a large size. Brooks tucks away his gray Italian cap in favor of his new chapeau.“It’s got a sort of classy look to it,” he says. “I just like that, that sense of Humphrey Bogart.”Madison smiles. A hat aficionado himself, he understands the allure beyond shade and warmth, the transformative verve of a rakish brim or chic beret.“It seems to strike a different part of your personality,” he says.He and his wife, Georgia, offer something for any persona in their narrow store full of 30 men’s and women’s styles displayed floor to ceiling. Fedoras, porkpies, cowboy hats, driving caps, straw boaters, derbies, Greek fisherman hats and outback hats share one wall with exotica such as pith helmets, yachting caps, a Sherlock Holmes hat, a pirate tri-corner and Civil War replicas.On the opposite side hangs another eclectic mix. Bell-shaped cloche hats. Russian-style, faux-fur diplomat hats. Basque and fleece berets. Knitted Peruvians. Sheepskin bomber hats with ear flaps. Eight quarter caps suitable for hawking newspapers. Mao caps in colors never seen during the Cultural Revolution.And then there are Georgia’s own creations.In her Ferguson Township home, she uses upholstery fabric and other material to make custom hats, such as a camouflage outback hat for a local fisherman or the dapper black top hat with the real rattlesnake skin band for her husband to wear at arts festivals. She also crafts Happy Valley Helmets, her own line of fleece football-themed and novelty headgear. Some have team mascot ears, horns or antlers, or feature leopard, jester, pig, cow and devil designs — far from frivolous to the Madisons, who say sales of the helmets support their business, allowing them to carry a wide selection.“They’re just a silly idea, but it’s amazing how they’ve become popular,” Georgia Madison says.A seamstress, she branched into hats in 1992 as a way to work at home while raising her two children. Her first went to her brother, a construction worker. He liked his cloth welder’s cap, good for keeping sparks out of hair, so much that she made more for him to take to jobs.“One of my friends said, ‘You’re making these, you ought to try to make ladies’ hats,’ ” Georgia says.She began selling at the People’s Choice Festival. Seven years ago, she opened the downtown store, largely running it herself until her husband, now 56, came on board after a bad back forced him to leave the construction industry.Before then, he says, not much more than baseball caps and motorcycle helmets covered his head. Now, he’s a hat guy, through and through.“I feel naked without a hat when I go out,” he says. “I don’t feel fully dressed.”To him, hats lend a certain panache, a measure of character setting the wearer apart from the crowd. That may become harder to achieve, as Madison says he’s seeing more demand for hats beyond theater props or Halloween costumes. It’s not as if we’re returning to the days when crowd photos showed a sea of felt crowns and elegant pillboxes, he says, but the stylish hat may be coming back in fashion.“I think it’s increasing because you’re seeing more entertainers wearing hats,” he said, citing the actor Samuel L. Jackson and his trademark Kangol caps. “I think that’s the biggest reason: Entertainers are buying them.”Indeed, the musician Nanci Griffith once stopped by after a concert in town and chose an Angora Kangol cloche — not that Georgia Madison was bowled over. Until Griffith’s friend clued her in, Madison had no idea her customer was anyone famous.“When she left, I looked her up on the computer,” Madison says, laughing. “Beautiful voice, beautiful woman, and here she was in my store, and I didn’t know who she was.”The sight of people browsing, the Madisons say, can be entertaining in its own right. Friends will model for each other, snapping photos on their cell phones. That’s fine: The more fun they’re having, humming the Indiana Jones theme, the greater the chance a hat will be the one — perfect for a round face, exactly the right flair.John Madison can explain pinched fronts and tear-drop crowns and show the difference between herringbone and houndstooth fabric. He can even demonstrate the resiliency of crush-proof fedoras by stomping one before an astonished customer.But he knows it’s personal, this relationship, that a bond won’t occur unless fabric or leather caresses a forehead just so.“Go out and see what you like,” he tells a student who offers to leave his jacket and wallet in order to give a Peruvian a test walk on a frigid morning. “I don’t mind.”

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