A Hat for Every Mood

A Hat for Every Mood

April 1st, 2013 by Mary Beth Torgerson in Chatter

Photo by Stephen Ratacjzyk

NAME: Carol Schaffeld

AGE: 55

OCCUPATION: Milliner, owner of Peaches Fine Millinery

Winning Best in Show at Chicago's Hats 2005 and earning titles at the official Kentucky Derby Museum's Annual Hat Competition in 2009, 2010 and 2012 is just a drop in the hat for Chickamauga-based milliner Carol Schaffeld. Since she opened her shop in 2008, Schaffeld has fitted more than 2,000 people with her creations - many of whom seek her out for a custom crown in honor of derby season, which will kick off May 4 with the Kentucky Derby.

? The craziest thing about the hats is that it never crossed my mind that I would do something like this. I grew up abroad. My dad was a builder, and when I was about 6, we moved to Northern Ireland, so I started school there and went to British schools. When you think about the British, you think about the hats ... and they never gave up their hats like American women did. Then we moved to Germany and my dad was building for American companies that were starting to go overseas like Volkswagen has come here. We lived in Brussels, Belgium the last year we lived there and then we came back to the states and came back to Birmingham, Ala. I had southern roots, but I had to practice saying 'Y'all ... y'all ...' to fit into the Birmingham scene.

? Because I lived abroad for so long, I loved languages. I went to Auburn and I majored in French and minored in German and got a minor in secondary education, so I always thought I would be a teacher. In the Washington, D.C., area it's like Mecca for anyone who speaks a foreign language, but I got up there and I didn't really find the job I was looking for and wound up working for an employment agency. It was so ironic - I couldn't find a job, so I found a job finding other people jobs.

? I've got three grown children and they went to school here in Chattanooga. When we moved here it was so different than what I expected. The downtown was all old warehouses and bus depots. There was this wonderful river, but everything around it ... it was just such a shame. I was pretty disappointed. I remember just crying. I had to get to know people so I got really involved in the community and in the Junior League. My advice to anyone who finds themself in a place they don't feel comfortable is to get involved, because then it becomes your home. It becomes your community. I feel quite at home here and I love what's happening to the city now.

? Moving around and being the new kid so often made me want to be the kind of teacher that is approachable. It's hard to be the new kid. I did actually teach French at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences here in town about five years ago, which I really enjoyed. But I was teaching kindergarten through 12th grade ... it was such a range. I loved the people there and I loved the kids, but I missed the hats.

"One of the best things for me is when someone comes in and says they just don't look good in hats or they have an illness they are going through and can't find anything, and they leave happy with boxes of hats."

? I got into hats when a friend of mine was having a big birthday and I wanted to give her something special. I'd always liked to play with ribbon and make ribbon flowers. You can make the prettiest pansies with ribbon and those were her favorite flowers, so I got a hat and a matching bag and I decorated it. She really loved that hat, and she happened to have this really nice upscale boutique in North Chattanooga. She wanted to start selling them in her shop and I thought, 'It's just too nice of a boutique - I don't want to go to the thrift stores and glue stuff on a readymade hat.' So, I got on the computer and put in millinery instruction and - ding, ding, ding - there was a workshop in Nashville like the next month. It gives me chills to even think about it.

? At my age taking this on later, I needed street cred. I didn't study at any fashion institute or anything, and I needed to show people that they could trust me with their hats, so that's how the hat competitions came in. I was at a hat class in L.A. - it's like a quilting bee, everyone is sitting around working on something and talking hats. I was sitting next to this woman who made 20 hats for the Titanic. (She said that it was the hardest thing ever because they were so particular.) Everyone was talking about the Kentucky Derby hat competition and I thought, 'Yeah, I'll send one in.' I started thinking strategically. I knew it had to be a little bit different so I went with a small brim, bright color, handmade ... and it worked - I won. I just wanted to participate in the show; I never expected to win. I am the queen of 'who knew.' It was like Sally Field - 'You like me! You really like me!' I thought it was a fluke and then dang if I didn't win it again. It was like, 'Take that, Kentucky girls!'

? I've stopped counting now, but I calculated that I've sold 2,000 hats. So when women say, 'Women don't wear hats anymore.' I say, 'Well, I can think of 2,000.' When hairspray came out, all of the hat shops began to close. All of a sudden it became about the hair. Hats in the states sort of fell out of favor and even though a lot of women wanted to wear their hats, they didn't want to be the only one. So women who saw that who grew up in the '60s and '70s have that idea. But younger women don't have that hat baggage.

? There's like a sociology aspect to wearing hats. Women are perhaps not as self-confident as they'd like to think they are because they won't put a hat on. One of the best things for me is when someone comes in and says they just don't look good in hats or they have an illness they are going through and can't find anything, and they leave happy with boxes of hats. There's a hat for everybody. Saying, 'I don't look good in hats' is like saying, 'I don't look good in shoes.' It just doesn't make sense.