When I began sketches for the illustrations of Angela Johnson’s euphoric poem A Girl Like Me, I spent a lot of time thinking about hats. The cowgirl hat mentioned in the second verse of the poem was easy enough to visualize, but what of the other hats mentioned in verse four? What did those hats look like? And where would I find a hat shop?
Milliners are a rare breed these days, but in a big city like NY, some still manage to operate successful storefront businesses. I knew of a few downtown and Brooklyn hat shops, but those stores didn’t feel quite right to me. I wanted a hat shop that perhaps a few might have visited for a special Easter church hat. A hat shop that their great aunt shopped in regularly. A hat shop in the black community.
My search led me to Harlem’s Heaven Hats located just north of 145thStreet on the east side of town. I contacted the shop owner, Evetta Petty, a talented milliner, and she graciously allowed me to come uptown and photograph inside and outside her shop. Inside her shop were hats of all kinds. Hats for women and hats for men. Stiff hats. Slouchy hats. Fascinators and cloches. Wedding hats and funeral hats. Hats with feathers and hats with leopard print. Hats with ribbons and bows and hats made with mud cloth fabric. Hats for an Easter church service and hats for a Saturday park picnic. Really just about any kind of hat you might want or need and perfectly suited to the imaginative energy of Angela’s words.
Evetta and I chatted a bit once I’d completed my photographs and I learned a bit more about her and her business. We talked about doing the work that you love and how NYC has changed over the years. She had just delivered a few hats to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for their Camp exhibit. In a week or two, she would be busy with orders for the Kentucky Derby.
It was a delight to meet Evetta Petty and visit Harlem’s Heaven Hats. It was the perfect location for my illustrations for A Girl Like Me. I’m sorry I couldn’t feature more of her store in the book, but I know exactly where I’ll go when I need a new hat!