You might know the names of famous black fashion designers—Ann Lowe is having a moment on sewing sites right now. But how about black milliners? One the biggest names in that field is Mae Reeves (1912-2016), who ran an extremely successful business in Philadelphia for over fifty years.
Reeves’ life and work is quite well documented. Born in Georgia, she first had a teaching career and took millinery classes during summer vacations. In 1934, she joined the post-World War One Great Migration and moved to Philadelphia. Determined to set up her own hat shop, she achieved her goal by the age of 28. Her first store was on South Street in the garment district. Later she moved to the commercial hub of West Philadelphia. The shop stayed opened until the mid 1990s. Mae Reeves lived until she was 104, still wearing her hats.
Her customers ranged from entertainment greats like Lena Horne, to white socialites, to black women who saved up money for special occasions. Her daughter, who helped out in the store, remembers a big rush around Easter and Mother’s Day. A part of the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia, Reeves opened up her store to political events. It became a voting site during elections.
After the shop closed, its contents were bought in their entirety by the Smithsonian Institution. A partial model has been recreated at the Smithsonian’s Museum for African American History and Culture as part of its “Power of Place” exhibitions.
If you have the time and interest, type “Mae Reeves” into the Smithsonian search engine. You will discover many fascinating items that came from her shop, including portraits of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. You might also want to pick out your favorite hat. This elegant black and cream model above is mine.