The typical dress code for Marsha McDowell and Pat Holifield includes pheasant feather hats and bonnets. And they love to tell the stories behind them.
For the past 15 years, the pair, known as The Hat Ladies, have been conducting programs to educate people about the stunning hats that women of Johnstown have worn since 1901.
“We conduct about 30 to 40 shows a year,” McDowell said.
The hat program started when McDowell was asked by Rosemary Pawlowski, executive director of the Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center in Cambria City, to conduct a hat program featuring local women during African-American History Month (February) and throughout the year.
Pawlowski asked if the program could follow the pattern of a book about church ladies in hat titled “Crown,” McDowell said.
“I went to my friends in the various churches and compiled a PowerPoint presentation and a live presentation featuring local women in the community,” McDowell said.
McDowell and another woman worked together in those early days. When McDowell’s partner moved out of the area, Holifield jumped at the chance to help.
McDowell said she and Holifield expanded their program to include vendors, entertainment, tributes and a memorial service to hat ladies who are deceased.
At the annual events, The Hat Ladies raise money for the Mattie King and Maggie Segars Scholarship Fund.
The money raised goes toward scholarships for minority children and adults who want to take classes or attend events at Bottle Works. A couple of thousands dollars for the fund has been raised so far.
“We both show our mother’s hats (at the program), and that gives us the chance to tell our mothers’ stories, Holifield said.
The late Mattie King is the mother of Holifield. The late Maggie Segars is the mother of McDowell.
Their program continued to grow and become more refined.
“Then something peculiar happened,” McDowell said. “Pat came up with the idea of taking it (hat program) on the road.”
Holifield said they started going to nursing homes to put on shows for residents. They also were invited to conduct their program at banquets and other events, she said.
Holifield said they have conducted their program from Pittsburgh to State College and Greensburg to Bedford.
“We have more than 500 hats,” Holifield said, adding that they feature between 30 and 40 hats at each show. “We have vintage hats from the ladies of Johnstown. We tell their stories.”
Sometimes the women receive the hats quietly by someone dropping off a hat at one of their porches. Other times people will come up to them after one of their programs and offer them a hat.
“Those people will say they have their mother’s or grandmother’s hats and don’t know what to do with them,” McDowell said.
“What they are saying is that they don’t want them to go to someone who won’t take care of them. They know we will use them to tell the story about the person who wore the hat.”
Holifield said once someone gives a hat to The Hat Ladies, the memory of that person will be preserved and their story told over and over again.
“It’s like the family has carved out a little bit of history for themselves,” she said.
For example, one of their hats is from the late Mabel Johnson of Johnstown, Holifield said.
Mrs. Johnson’s husband was the first black dentist in Johnstown. In the 1950s the Johnsons were invited to appear on the television show “This is Your Life,” a program showcasing extraordinary lives, she said. Mrs. Johnson presented them with the hat that she wore on the train trip to Chicago where the show was being produced, Holifield said.
Pawlowski, said The Hat Ladies do a fabulous job.
“I love them,” she said. “We call them the Famous Fabulous Hat Ladies.”
They started off by modeling contemporary hats, but then they realized that the women who really respect and wear them well often have a family tradition of wearing hats.
The next step was collecting and modeling the vintage hats that those women wore and telling the stories about those women, she said.
The audience likes their program, she said.
“They just bring so much joy to people, and they love the people for whom they perform,” Pawlowski said.
Allegra Slick, executive director of Mom’s House, Johnstown, first saw The Hat Ladies at a fundraiser and thought they would make an excellent addition to Mom’s House’s 30th Anniversary Reunion banquet in April.
“The women were so well prepared and so entertaining for every age group who attended,” Slick said. “Men enjoyed the show as much as the women did.
“We all walked away after the show remembering events in our past where our mothers, grandmothers and aunts all wore hats to our special occasions.”
With such a large assortment of hats, no two programs should be identical, she said.
More can be learned about The Hat Ladies at thehatladies.net.