The tools of a hatter's trade (though not at New World Hatters) Credit: Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.

Last week, I wrote a profile of Susan Abelson, a self-described “milliner of sorts” who owns a shop called Susan Hat in Rogers Park. Hatmaking is a dying art, and so is hat wearing; it takes a certain kind of panache to pull off an especially dramatic specimen, like, say, a hot-pink cloche covered in fabric roses. Abelson can do it. I cannot.

About 20 years ago, Grant Pick wrote a profile of another hatmaker who also talked about the disappearance of his craft. Ray Panice, then 75, had worked at New World Hatters in West Garfield Park for half a century, the particular half century when hats ceased to a standard part of the American wardrobe except in cold weather.

“Hats were once a popular item,” [Panice] laments, “but now people walk around in T-shirts and jeans and caps on their heads, if that. When you go out to a restaurant or a club, the trouble is that there’s no place to hang your hat. If there’s a coat-check room, they stack up the hats like cordwood, and afterward they’re greasy and messed up.” 

Panice himself favored a fedora, either gray or brown. “A hat makes you look like something,” he told Pick.

New World Hatters had been through a lot during Panice’s tenure, and not just the decline of the hat. The store burned down in the 1968 riots. Panice and his brother and co-owner Herman considered leaving the neighborhood, but they owed too many people money. So they scrounged for stock and equipment and within six months had reopened near Madison and Keeler.

Although Panice was trained in hatmaking, by 1998, most of the hats he sold were ready-made: brightly-colored pimp hats were popular again. He used his skills to repair old hats or reconfigure them for new owners.

Panice likes to name hats after movie actors and the roles they’re associated with. In his lexicon a homburg becomes a Marlon Brando, and a gambler’s hat turns into a Clark Gable. “See this Superfly?” he asks, holding up a black straw number with a big brim. “It’s a good job, no? You could never tell it looked different than it does now.”

Panice died in 2012. New World Hatters is still open.