To Top It All Off

New Orleans Advocate Society Columnist, Nell Nolan, shares her passion for stylish chapeaus.

Impeccably dressed, usually with a fashionable hat, Nell Nolan is the social grande dame of New Orleans. She has the pedigree, the style and the decades of experience as the arbitrator of all things social in her newspapers columns. Currently the society columnist of the New Orleans Advocate, Nolan previously served as the social columnist for The Times-Picayune for decades.         

Nolan turns heads each time she walks into a room adorned with a fashionable hat.

“I have always worn hats,” she says with a smile as she joins the friendly chatter at a recent Margarita Bergen Round Table luncheon at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. “We wore hats to church, and my mother dressed my sister, Margie, and me in cute little white hats with navy blue bands for summer.”

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She pauses for a moment as she greets a pair of well-dressed ladies who come over to speak with her before summing up why she loves to wear hats.

“Hats serve many purposes: they finish a look, can change your looks, protect you from the sun, and make you look like a lady of mystery when you wear a big, floppy chapeau,” she says. “Simply put, I love to wear hats.”

Her memory of her fondness for hats goes back to the little Dutch girl hats her grandmother on her mother’s side, Mary Porter of Kentucky, made for her.

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“The homemade hats were very cute, with flipped-up sides,” she says, recalling how she bought several cloche hats as a teenager. “I especially remember a red one that looked great with a slim skirt, a tailored jacket, and nice black high heels. It was definitely ‘Sabrina’ chic.”

She says her mother, Mary Nell Nolan, wore hats all the time.

“She and her good friend, Jackie Bolton, would don their latest hats and have lunch at Galatoire’s,” she says. “They were beautiful women and turned every head. They co-founded a women’s ball, called Sybarites, with three other friends, and all the ladies wore wonderful headdresses. They also asked the men to dance.”

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Where does she find her treasured chapeaus?

“I usually purchase new hats on a whim; I see something I like and buy it,” she says. Nolan has a fond memory of purchasing her favorite fisherman’s hat while traveling in Holland with her husband, Robert Young. “We were visiting a tiny village and I bought it instantly the minute I saw it,” she says. “I pulled out my cash and it was mine. It is an ideal hat that works well for drizzly days when I travel and I don’t want to pull out an umbrella.”

With almost too many hats to count, where does she keep them?

“I keep them in several different places, including my dressing room, atop a mantel, in hat boxes, in my suitcase (including my fisherman’s hat for travel), and in the trunk of my car,” she says. “Often, I lend one of my hats in the trunk to a friend during hot days when they need shade, and I have given a few away to friends who needed them.”

Nell has a fond memory of going to Russia by herself when she was 22.

“I joined a group once I got to Leningrad, as it was called then; it is now called St. Petersburg. It was very cold, and I quickly purchased a marvelous fur hat to keep me warm,” she says. She also bought a cute black hat in Paris when she was living there and she recalls wearing it constantly. “Then there is the treasured black beret I wore in France and still wear from time to time at costume parties,” she adds.

Her oldest treasured hats include a black toreador that she wore in a photo when The States-Item featured her as one of the city’s 10 Best Dressed Women.

“I was in graduate school and working around the clock on my course work and teaching, and to have an honor like that was a lot of fun, as well as a real diversion.” she says. “Another special treasure is the hat I won in a chopstick contest when Robert and I were on a cruise in China. I had to pick up peanuts with chopsticks and my reward was a baseball cap with the name of the Chinese cruise line on it.”

Other treasured head pieces include her small, tulle wedding veil she wore for her January 1988 wedding. “It is dear and sentimental to me, as is the elaborate hat I wore when I was Queen of the Bastille Day Parade years ago. Carter Church designed it, and it is just fabulous, as was my Marie Antoinette-inspired gown. That hat is in my attic, along with my dress. But the dearest hat I cherish is my mother’s little hat that I have kept all these years. It reminds me of the 1940s and, of course, of her.” Then she takes her cherished mother’s hat out of a bag for a show-and-tell moment to display its uniqueness.

Hats are more than fashion to Nell.

“They are a walk down memory lane, something to protect you from the rain and sun, or just an object of beauty,” she says.

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