Lil’s World: Hanging Out At Harriet Rosebud’s Latest Hat Show In Harlem

June 23, 2023

By Lil Nickelson and Photo by Rudy Collins

On a rainy Saturday, May 20th, 2023, morning eager ticket holders began flowing into the Alhambra Ballroom.

The Ballroom is located on the southwest corner of 126th Street at 2116 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. at 9 am to attend the 2023 Great American Hat Show under this year’s theme of “Say It Loud, I am Black, and I am Proud.” The show producer is hat maker Harriet Rosebud, the owner of Harriet Rosebud Hats, who is the first Black millinery artist to be licensed in the United States. Now there were Black woman hat designers before her, like Mildred Blount (1907-1974), “milliner to the stars”, who is best known for her costume work on the iconic film Gone With The Wind or Mae Reeves, who created the “Mae’s Millinery” hat shop in Philadelphia in 1940s who made custom-made hats described as “showstoppers”. Harriet is the first Black milliner licensed in the U.S.

Harriet Rosebud’s hat designs run from classic church lady to edgy, one-of-a-kind, “whose that girl” look, but her hat shows are next level up, fantastic, magical, and always include a moment in Black fashion history to educate her audience all rolled up in one. I was given all access to Harriet Rosebud’s public sessions from model tryouts to dress rehearsal to showtime. I knew the music would be from the late 60s and 70s and that Soul Train would be one of the main themes. Harriet spoke to me about finding a former Soul Train dancer willing to attend. I instinctively knew the church would be a scene because Harriet is a woman of faith, and church ladies may be decreasing in total numbers, but not in their love of purchasing fly hats. Now that I’ve cut my hair very short I’m a fan of her edgier hats, plus my need to keep my head stylish and warm has increased considerably.

I observed the new models the seasoned ones, to the “this gig is mine” models strut their stuff for the panel of judges at the one tryout I attended in the theater district. The dress rehearsal really was getting me in the mood with the music pumping and the male and female models trying on show time outfits from head-to-toe with women strutting their stuff up on the auditorium stage and men doing their swag walk down the aisles at P.S. 194 Countee Cullen in Harlem. I hadn’t heard that much soul music from James Brown, The Temptations, and Aretha Franklin since I was going to the Apollo Theater for the Saturday matinee back in the day. I left that school feeling like I had taken a step back in time musically.

The show itself had seven scenes: Emerald City, Mahogany, Say It Loud, Early Come Sunday Morning, Super Fly, Battle of Versailles, and Soul Train. Green-, red- and gold-colored hats and fashion outfits dominated the first two scenes. Bright colors continued throughout the rest of the hat extravaganza.

Harriet Rosebud’s creative team included Levolia Johnson, Queen of Hats and The Face of Rosebud. Dr. Princess Jenkins, the owner of The Brownstone, a contemporary lifestyle boutique at 24 East 125th Street, and Larry Underwood of The House of Underwood were two of the main contributors of the fashions on display for women and menswear respectively. Love Tucker, model and author served as the show’s fashion director and Ms. Sophia Davis, founder and chief designer for The House of Sophia Couture and chief content officer of Fashion Avenue News. The show’s director was Keith Nixon, the president of Imagin8ion, a full-service multimedia (video, music, photography, and graphic design) company.

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Special performers and special guests were young people in the Dance Ministry Institute of New Rochelle that danced behind the models making the event intergenerational, poet Donat De La Cruz who graced the crowd with his spoken words, Dr. Rettie Winfield, author of Early Come Sunday Morning, gospel comedian Malinda Daniel-Davison and the first Asian American Soul Train Dancer, legend Cheryl Song.

Every show Harriet Rosebud educates her audience and this year we gained some Black fashion history knowledge during the Battle of Versailles scene. The Battle of Versailles was a fashion show held on November 28, 1973, at the Palace of Versailles in France. The show was organized to showcase American fashion designers and prove that they could compete with French designers. The event featured five French designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, and Marc Bohan) and five American designers (Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Stephen Burrows).

Stephen Burrows was one of the five American designers invited to participate in the Battle of Versailles fashion show and he was the only Black designer, and the youngest by many years. He certainly didn’t have the level of fame or reputation that the other four designers shared. However, Burrows generated buzz and excitement as a great emerging talent. Pat Cleveland was his greatest muse and model, one of the first African American supermodels on the runway in Paris. The event reflected some of the diversity of the U.S. and provided an international stage for the Black Is Beautiful movement, as 10 of the 36 models were African American. This showcase essentially kicked off the tradition of Paris Fashion Week.

Stephen Burrows’ fashions were known for their bright colors and “curly-edge hems”, became an integral part of NYC’s disco-dancing scene of the 1970s was signed by a French company afterwards, and his designs exploded with color and encouraged movement, as they slid over the body like a second skin. Steven Burrows, a Black designer with a totally American design signature, which is almost unheard of on Seventh Avenue in the 1970s when designers would seasonally buy and copy French clothes, Burrows’ modern art colors, used in huge blocks and other innovative dressmaking techniques, dazzled Paris. His designs back then were sheer genius and a tour de force seldom seen in fashion.

So, Harriet took us back to a time when we discovered how beautiful, stylish, and full of swag Black people really are. Black lives matter in so many ways.

Thanks, Harriet.

Photo credit: 1-2) By Rudy Collins. 3) Unknown. 4-14) By June Broxton

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