(originally published 5/14/20)
Kansas City has many claims to fame, but I unearthed a new one today – at least new to me. It wasn’t news to Dr. Felicia Londré, author of 2007’s The Enchanted Years of The Stage, Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater 1870-1930. I have her to thank for filling out the story so well that it compelled me to share it with you.
In the 1890s, the entertainment culture in Kansas City covered the spectrum from crude to refined. On the one hand, downtown was home to a number of attractions that wouldn’t be appropriate anywhere today, let alone in the heart of the city’s business district. Freak shows, dime museums, vaudeville houses and cycloramas – these “low brow” entertainments were scattered among the same blocks that were home to the city’s most “high brow” venues, like the Coates Opera House, the Grand Opera House and the Ninth Street Theater.
But in 1895, the eyes of the city’s theatrical maven, D. Austin Latchaw, were trained on something more problematic, more of an assault to theater-goers’ sensibilities than tawdry entertainments and collections of phony relics. Latchaw was incensed about the wardrobe of many of the ladies who attended the city’s more refined performances. Specifically, their over-sized hats.
Latchaw was a major figure in the city’s theatrical community, by way of his position as drama and music editor for both the Kansas City Times and then the Kansas City Journal. Latchaw left the Times for the Journal in 1895, the year of this event. Ultimately, he found his way to the Kansas City Star where he finished his forty-year newspaper career in 1928.
Latchaw took up the “big hat” question because hats represented a real distraction from the enjoyment of an evening’s performance for all patrons, although as events were recounted, more attention seemed to be put on the “poor, suffering men” who accompanied these women to the theatre, or had the misfortune of being seated behind one.
Latchaw approached Mel Hudson, manager of the Coates Opera House, requesting he include a notice in the program politely asking women to remove their hats during the performance. Hudson refused, not willing to offend or inconvenience half his patrons. So Latchaw organized the city’s other theatrical and society columnists to join the campaign by addressing the “hat issue” in their columns. The campaign convinced Hudson to include the message in his program.
The following is a transcript of the front page article on the event as it appeared on the front page of the Star’s edition the following day. The story captures with humor and charm the moment-to-moment account of the big hat showdown in the Coates House that March night in 1895. Of course, having occurred 125 years ago, the modern reader will quickly see the vast difference in the presumptive role of the sexes, as well as the obvious class boundaries, to say the least.
Her Ladyship, with gracious suavity, has taken off her hat! When the comic paragraphers jeered, when the Man Behind grumbled, when the witch-burning legislators threatened, Her Ladyship’s hugest hats and broadest bows and proudest plumes held their begrudged place in calm defiance.
But when Melville Hendrick Hudson, manager and diplomate, gave courteous wording to the pleas of Those Who Came Yet Saw Not, and with irresistible politeness, requested forbearance, the obstructive top-gear-vanished as if by magic.
The scene of this most memorable and generous capitulation was the Coates Opera house; the time, last night. The programme of the evening’s performance contained – as the newspapers had foretold – this card:
When the people began pouring into the theater, shortly before 8 o’clock, it looked bad for the hat proposition. The way hats floated in, defiance seeming to breathe from each feather and flower and ribband [sic], was appalling. There were moments of hope, moments when the mirror in the lobby became a kaleidoscope reflection of yellow hair. Why it was that blond women, particularly,, made that mirror a sacrificial alter of headgear is past finding out, but they did.
Then big, defiant black hats would come in a bunch and hope was thrust back, until a concourse of sweet little hats, followed by a bevy of absolutely hatless heads and radiant smiles, gave reassurance. Then a big black hat, again, like an unrelenting conspirator in the court, and so the tide of hats and heads flowed in.
Five minutes before the curtain rose, there were hats all over the house like ominous specters. Manager Hudson flung up his arms. “All is lost” he exclaimed.
The subservience of man was pitiful. The man who has said many bitter things about big hats – who has railed at big hats – was there and the bitterer the anti-hat man, the bigger the hat of his companion. The big hats marched in front and the man followed after, like a captive dragged at the chariot wheels of female supremacy.
The hatless women and the almost hatless ones bowed and smiled to friends; they were happy. The big-hatted contingent looked neither to the right nor to the left, but seemed resolute. They were only misunderstood: they knew their own plans and were content to await, in patience, their exculpation. But it looked like open war.
Suddenly came the stampede!
Stories have been told of the stampedes of wild-eyed cattle; of mad stampedes of scared soldiers who wanted to quit the war quick; of conventions stampeded to a “dark horse,” but a stampede of hats had yet to occur and it happened at 8:07 o’clock last evening at the Coates.
Just where it began observers differ. Some say a large yellow hat just behind the rail on the right started it. It is asserted that this hat riveted the glance of every feminine eye and it became thus the leader, and when it sank from sight the rush was on.
At any rate, an uneasy flutter ran through the house, like the sound of leaves shaking in the presage of a tempest, and here and there white hands went up and tugged at hat pins and other mysteries. Hats disappeared on all sides. Two hundred hands fluttered about hats that had seemed defiant.
One, two, three, four, and ten! The curtain rolled up and only three big hats remained in all the orchestra seats and orchestra circle.
Two of them were together, far back. The other held its own alone.
There were hats which stayed on, to be sure, but they were not the “theatre hats” of fame. The parquette contained 201 women. They wore, to begin with, five distinct sorts of headgear, namely: Big, big hats, 19; big hats, 22; unobtrusive hats, 37; sweet little hats, 39; no hats, 84. When the stampede was over three big hats remained, together with fourteen of the obstructive kind, and twenty-seven sweet little hats.
The eighty-four who came hatless and charming were the phalanx of victory against the big hat in the parquette and they were radiant with triumph.
In the balcony it was different. An atmosphere of perversity as subtle as the perfume that floated about, surrounded exactly two-thirds of the fair ones there. The other one-third sat hatless, targets of disapproving eyes of their twenty-five unyielding sisters, but inwardly upheld by their own conscious graciousness. Of these those who came without hats were about equal in number to those who removed their hats after entering.
Manager Clark of the Ninth Street Theater will agitate a like movement with possibly a few variations. “I have been thinking of trying the scheme for some time,” he said this morning. “It’s a good thing, doubtless. It certainly ruffles a man a bit to pay a dollar or a dollar and a half for a seat at the theater for the privilege of contemplating a rear elevation of elaborate design in headgear. I shall inaugurate the plan in a few days and I believe it will be successful. If the ladies object to holding their hats on their laps, I will arrange a dressing room where they may check them on going in.”
Manager Judah at the Grand takes a different view of the matter. “I don’t feel that I have any right to dictate as to what ladies shall wear in the theater,” he said. “there is no doubt that it would prove a great benefit to the men if they would not wear hats, but if there is any change here at the Grand it will be entirely voluntary. The plan worked very nicely at the Coates last night and believe it won’t be long until the ladies will either all remove their hats or else wear small ones, but if they haven’t enough consideration for the men to remove them without a request from me, why, they’ll continue to be worn. I’m not going to ask them to take them off.”
Latchaw was not the first in the country to call attention to this – for lack of a better word – problem. Londré writes “Latchaw must be credited as the trail-blazer who changed Kansas City audience behavior in a way that was quickly emulated in theaters nationwide.” Her research and citations back up the claim. The Coates Opera House event occasioned a number of articles in the major newspapers from coast to coast, adding to a national discussion. But Latchaw’s success was fleeting. Just on the other side of 1900, a new millinery trend emerged, a trend toward hats twice as large and infinitely more extravagant as they had been in 1895. They were then and are still referred to as “Merry Widow” hats. Ironically, the name came from an extravagant hat worn by the actress Lily Elise, who played the title character in one of the most popular operettas of its time, “The Merry Widow.”
All due credit for the content of this post is given to Dr. Felicia Londré and her wonderful book for providing the basis for this piece. Among her many accomplishments, Felicia Hardison Londré is the former long-time Resident Dramaturg with the Missouri Repertory Theatre at UMKC. Her previous eleven books include the History of World Theater: From the English Restoration to the Present, and Words at Play: Creative Writing and Dramaturgy.
(Featured Photo: two ladies with extreme hats, in one of the popular styles of the time – use of a stuff bird in the ornamentation.