D elMonico sells hats.
Now, if you’ve lived in downtown New Haven during the past 106 years, that statement is not going to turn your head. It’s not going to make you hold onto your hat or flip your lid.
But try this on for size: how many other hat shops can you name? Not just in Connecticut, but anywhere? And we’re not talking about men’s clothing stores with a few hats in the corner, or those places at the mall that sell only baseball caps; those don’t count. Try to think of a standalone shop that is strictly in business to sell hats.
See? You can’t top DelMonico. Though they of course top everyone who walks in the door…with a Borsalino fedora or a Christy Lynwood or a white DelMonico Optimo Panama hat with black grosgrain hatband. Tweed caps. “Aviator” hats, as Charles Lindbergh might have worn. British derbies, with either the standard wider brim or newly fashionable “stingy” brims.
Now, you may well wonder: who’s buying all those hats? Or is it just a few diehard customers, each of whom sports several heads?
If you look at pictures of old New Haven, it’s easy to see the incredible demand there once was for hats. In the huge photo of a full stadium of folks cheering at the Harvard-Yale game of 1928 which hangs in the back room of Rudy’s on Chapel Street, every single one of the thousands of men in the bleachers is wearing a hat. Hundreds of those locally bought hats might well have been hurled in disgust, while Harvard fans were tossing theirs in the air (the score was 17-0). That’s a lot of hats to replace.
These days, not as much. Hats have never stopped being a stylish fashion accessory, but the derby is no longer de rigueur. But stepping into DelMonico and marveling at the dazzling range of headwear, you’d never know that.
“My dad was in the business 73 years. I got involved when he died,” explains Ernest DelMonico, who’s been running the shop at 47 Elm Street (between Orange and State street, and next door to another old-fashioned storefront, the A.D. Perkins rubber-stamp and sign-making company) for the past 12 years. Ernest says he “knew the hat business; I’d been around it all my life.” But he also understood computer-based commerce, from his old profession selling computer software to banks, and wasted no time creating a website to sell DelMonico’s hats online.
There are bigger hat retailers out there, Ernest DelMonico acknowledges, but “we sell a lot. Fedoras, caps, everything.” There’s a steady local demand for hats from theater companies—DelMonico says he can always tell when costume designers have skimped on getting quality hats for shows, and calls out a Broadway revival of the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men for outfitting its 1950s characters in “hats they never would have worn.” But the bulk of DelMonico’s business now comes from internet sales. “Twenty percent of our hats go to California,” DelMonico says.
It’s been a cold winter, but DelMonico no longer has to base its business around the comic scenario of a man having his hat blown off in the terrific winds which wail down the corner of College and Chapel Street (the blusteriest corner in town), or having his top hat knocked off by street hooligans brandishing snowballs, then trudging to the shop for a new one. “This has been a very busy winter for us,” DelMonico says, smiling, but he doesn’t have to worry about foot traffic to sell hats.
The DelMonico shop employs nine part- or full-time workers who mostly busy themselves about the shop filling mail orders and optimizing the website’s search engine ranking. But in other respects, the shop behaves just as it used to a century ago (when it was originally on Grand and Olive Streets, just a few blocks from its present location). If you go in looking for a hat, you can browse the hundreds of hats which line the shelves along the walls, ask questions and just feel snappy.
You’ll learn that the Stetson brand isn’t limited to cowboy hats any more than Kangol is confined to caps. Or that you can find derby hats in straw as well as felt. Or that derbies, which are worn by women as much as by men, come in bright, light aubergine-colored models handwoven in Ecuador.
You’ll discover that many nice hats can be had for around $50 apiece, and that a genuine Borsalino Como Fedora (not the knock-offs that less respectable dealers might want to hoodwink you with), with its wide brim and distinctive whip-stitch in the brim, will set you back around $300. (The Como comes in black, charcoal gray or taupe.)
Then, when you’ve absorbed all that information and taken in all the wonderful variations of headwear available, you can keep it under your hat.
47 Elm St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 11am-5:30pm, Sat 10am-5pm
(203) 787-4086 or 1-866-470-HATS
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.