“NWHM de Pizan Hat Auction: The Margaret Bourke White Hat”

By: Laura Spears

As a young girl, Margaret Bourke White a child with broad interests. She was interested in photography, and with the encouragement and instruction of her father, it became one of her hobbies. She was also interested in science, and wanted to be a zoologist that studied jungle reptiles. As a university student, Margaret majored in herpetology, and used her gift as a photographer to fund her college degree. However, after taking a photography course at Cornell, she decided to switch career paths.

Margaret Graduated from Cornell University at the age of 23 and relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. There, she established herself as a professional photographer, running her own business out of her one bedroom apartment. She used her bathtub as a chemical bath for her photos and stored her supplies in kitchen cabinets. She specialized in photographing architecture and new buildings for businesses. As a hobby, she also photographed subjects she was interested in, like the Otis Steel plant. She developed a very dramatic, unique style of photographing industry and architecture.

It was this style that caught the attention of the publishers of a new periodical, Life Magazine. In 1936, Margaret shot a photo essay for the very first issue of the magazine. Her subject was the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana. The publishers were so impressed with her work, that she became part of their journalistic staff. In the years of the Great Depression, Margaret would shift the focus of her work away from industry and production and become more interested human subjects. Her photo essays at this time dealt mainly with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

When World War II began in Europe, Margaret was sent to document the war for Life Magazine. She was in Moscow when the German army invaded, and was the only foreign journalist to cover the story. One night, she set up her camera on the roof of the American embassy for a long exposure. She left it there and took cover inside the embassy during the air raid. Another night, she and her husband, the writer Erskine Caldwell, hid from their hotel staff as they were evacuating guests from the building. From the balcony of her room, Margaret took action shots of the siege.

In the years to come, Margaret would get much closer to the action of the battlefield. After the United States entered the war, she became an accredited war correspondent. She was the first female correspondent to work in battle zones. Traveling to Italy, North Africa and Germany, she documented the war up close. In 1945, Margaret took photographs of the Buchenwald Concentration camp shortly after it was liberated by American troops. They were some of the first images of the Holocaust many Americans would see.

After World War II, Margaret continued her work for Life, working in the United States and abroad. She photographed Apartheid in South Africa, Gandhi at his spinning wheel in India, and did a series of aerial photographs of America. In 1953, after struggling with pain in her limbs for some time, she learned that she had Parkinson’s disease. She developed a rigorous exercise routine to off put the effects of the disease for as long as possible and continued to work for many more years. She died in 1971, at the age of 67.

The design of Margaret’s hat is inspired by her time at a war correspondent for the United States military during World War II.  As an accredited correspondent, Margaret was fed and transported by the Army. She was also issued a uniform consisted of a jacket, a skirt (although Margaret would soon abandon the skirt for pants), and a cap. A green armband or a patch would identify her as a correspondent. This style of cap is called a garrison hat or an envelope cap. Typically, it would be made in the same color fabric as the uniform. Many soldiers, of all ranks, were issued this cap. The color of the piping on the cap would indicate the wearer’s rank.

World War II had many effects on American women’s fashion. The most obvious was that certain clothing items were rationed, such as leather shoes. Clothing manufacturers were also limited to the amount of fabric they could use per garment. However, hats were not affected by rationing, so they became a favorite accessory for women looking to add variety to their wardrobe. The design of hats was also influenced by military uniforms. It was not at all uncommon for hat designers to copy the shape of military issued hats in their designs, which is exactly what milliner Becca Miller did in creating this garrison hat out of a colorful wool.

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