For longtime milliner, a hat is not just a hat

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 10:03 PM

Hats are more than just an accessory; they can also convey personality, style and even history. And in Lee County, nobody knows that better than Barbara Wood.

Wood, who owns the aptly named Hats by Barbara Wood at the corner of Horner Boulevard and Pearl Street, stitches culture, history and values into her hats in equal measure to thread and faux flowers.

According to the longtime Sanford resident, when a someone buys a church hat, it tells about values or character; when someone buys a wedding veil, it tells about family; when someone buys traditional African attire, it tells about history; when someone buys one of the special hats she makes for the class anniversaries of two local, defunct black schools, it tells about the legacy of Jim Crow laws.

The list goes on and on, and Wood, who made her first hat in 1945, has ample experience with hats and the messages they convey. And, she said, hats can even remind people of their own upbringing, which the story of her first hat does for her.

She had an outfit but no hat to match, which she said was simply not acceptable to her family.

“You weren’t fully dressed without a hat, gloves and a pocketbook,” she said.

Wood began learning about different styles and fashions after making that first hat, she said, and she’s still passionate, speaking enthusiastically about styles Kate Middleton has popularized since the Royal Wedding — trends she’s now following herself. She still makes a new hat or repairs and older one every day, despite her sons telling her she needs to retire after 23 years in her shop in downtown Sanford, and nearly 70 years after stitching together that first hat. But she likes what she does.

“I create and have my own special thing,” she said.

And now, in the heart of Black History Month, she’s offering traditional African hats, scarves, dashikis and other attire that both expand her creativity and, she said, can help people get in touch with their roots.

“It’s part of our heritage,” she said. “The clothes and colors you see represent our country.”

She has plenty of clothes in the traditional red, black and green colors of the Pan-African flag, as well as in other colors like the orange one she wore Friday.

She and her husband of 56 years, Major Wood, a deacon at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church on Colon Road, both wear customary African garb to church during the month of February, which they say is a tradition many follow. Barbara said she’s done as much digging into her ancestry as she can and believes she’s at least partially descended from the Watusi, or Tutsi, people from the area that now comprises Rwanda and Burundi. Major said he doesn’t know which people he’s descended from, but both said the traditional garb reminds them of their ancestors — and the terrible history that brought so many to this country.

“It’s important not to forget where we came from,” Major said. “... We can’t just let it die. Everybody wants to know about their family; that’s all it is.”

Barbara, who was honored last year at a Temple Theatre performance of Crowns: The Gospel Musical, which is about black women and their hats, agreed. She said honoring the African part of African-American doesn’t diminish the American part.

“Even though we live in the United States, we have a heritage,” she said, later adding: “We know that we should hold on to it. ... Always remember where we came from, you know? We made it. Oh, we made it.”