Lansing Town Councilwoman Andra Benson has enough hats to keep the domes of an entire Kentucky Derby crowd shaded, which is why her husband Chuck refers to her as the “Hat Lady of Lansing.”
With 48 boxes carrying anywhere between one and four hats stored in her and her husband’s bedroom in their house, Benson estimates she has about 130 hats in her 30-year-old collection. She said she has no particular reason for why she loves to collect hats.
“I just decided I looked better in hats,” Benson said. “I look a little taller, because I’m quite short. I thought, ‘Jeez, I’ve got a face that’s not too bad looking with hats.’”
Hat collecting was not a tradition passed down to her from her family, either.
“My mother did not wear hats,” she said. “I grew up in an era where you did get quite dressed up to go to church, and Easter was the biggest occasion to wear a hat. I was used to wearing hats when my mother would buy us a different Easter hat every Easter. I’m from an Italian background, and most of the ladies did not wear hats regularly.”
Her collection features a wide spread, from baseball to paperboy caps, cloches to Gatsbys, to straw pork pies to wide-brim church hats. Benson said she mainly purchases hats when she travels.
“I started buying them for occasions like weddings or Easter, Christmas, whatever,” she said. “We did a lot of traveling, so I picked up a hat from every country I traveled [to], because it had memories and I could wear it over and over again.”
Each year, Benson, along with a group of teenagers and adults from the Catholic church she is a part of, travel to Guatemala to do mission work— renovating or building houses or building roads—through one of the Catholic churches in the foreign country. She said she has bought a few hats over the years traveling to Guatemala, especially because of the blistering heat there.
“We’re about a mile high, and I’m the only one who takes it seriously when they say bring a hat,” she said. “And I always do, with a big brim because of the sun. You’re literally closer to the sun; the sun is a little more brilliant. I’ve picked up some lovely hats in Guatemala.”
She said she went to Ghana once on an invitation from a priest that used to be affiliated with the Catholic church she is a part of.
“They have fabulous hats. And, of course, the women wear the hats to church,” she said. “I have one that’s so big I can’t drive a car with it, because it’s big and it flops down. My peripheral vision is gone.”
When it comes to her personal favorites, Benson said she cherishes the ones she wore to the weddings for a few of her children. One of them is a black and grey wide-brim hat that is more firm than floppy, unlike the one she bought in Ghana, with a faux flower and bow (hat pictured in the bottom left corner of the photo).
The second one is a cream-colored linen hat with faux polka dot flower and bow, which was gifted to her by the mother-in-law of one of her sons (hat in the bottom right corner of the photo).
“My other son married a young lady with an Irish background, and her mother had gone to Ireland months before the wedding, and so she bought this hat for me,” she said. “This is one that I really, really like.”
The third one is another wide-brim hat that is in the shade of salmon pink with a faux flower and bow and made of straw (hat Benson is wearing in the photo above). Benson said she purchased that hat in Italy.
“The straw from the Italian hats is very, very fine,” she said. “When I bought this, I went into a hat shop…each hat had its own drawer that they pulled out, and they used gloves to hand you the hat.”
Another hat that she holds dear to her heart is a straw hat that was owned by her husband’s grandmother, which was given to her by her mother-in-law. Benson said her husband’s grandmother wore the hat on her honeymoon.
“It’s not in the greatest shape, so I don’t wear it,” Benson said. “But when I open the box and there it is, I say, ‘Oh, that was Chuck’s grandmother’s hat.’… Chuck’s father was born in 1918, so it had to be pre-1918, the hat, because she wore it on her honeymoon.”
Even though there are some hats in her collection that possess high sentimental value, Benson said she has no problem letting people borrow hats from her collection.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh Andra I have to go to this kind of party, and they say please wear a hat and I don’t have any hats,’ so they tell me the color and I’ll let them choose,” she said.
Simultaneously, she is more than happy to receive any hat gifted to her by someone she knows.
“Some are ones that they bought and they didn’t like the way it fit on their heads, and so they said, ‘Oh Andra, you want to try this,’” she said. “Others very nicely looked at a hat and said, ‘Oh, that looks like Andra.’”
“I accept all of them. Even if I don’t like them I accept every one, because I think that’s the right thing to do if someone thought of you.”