Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Bes-Ben Shops. Chicago's Avant-Garde Milliner.

Benjamin Benedict Green-Field (1897*-1988) was born in Chicago. When he was six, his father passed away and his mother, Ida, took up millinery to support the family. After dropping out of high school, Green-Field also apprenticed in the millinery trade.

In 1919, Benjamin Green-Field and his sister Bessie (1895-1987) opened a millinery and hat boutique on Chicago’s State Street and named it Bes-Ben. 

NOTE: The difference between a Haberdasher and a Milliner is that a haberdasher is a dealer in ribbons, buttons, thread, needles, small sewing accessories and sewing goods (aka notions) while a milliner is a person who is involved in the manufacture, design, and/or the sale of hats for women.

The pair's business had grown to the point in eight years and opened four more shops. 
Portrait of Benjamin Green-Field seated with sister Bessie, c.1920s
Within eight years, the pair had grown their business enough to open four more shops. Though Bessie left the business shortly after to get married, Benjamin continued to sell hats for more than fifty years, serving clients from Chicago’s high society and Hollywood stars like Lucille Ball, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Landis, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Bes-Ben hats were often decorated with multiple “miniatures” of things, including dogs, owls, palm trees, lobsters, kitchen utensils, napkin rings, cigarette packages, bugs, skyscrapers, and doll furniture. The hat that Green-Field made for Hedda Hopper to wear to the premiere of the film ‘The Razor’s Edge’ was even topped with actual razors!
Women's Bes-Ben hat featuring a crown of navy blue straw decorated on edge with six gold and brown silk floss embroidered butterflies. Three butterflies sit atop the crown. Navy diamond pattern net veil. Worn by donor's mother, Mrs. Donald F. McPherson (Frances Ogden West), grandniece of William B. Ogden, first mayor of Chicago,  c.1956
Women's hat with crown entirely covered with white, grey, blue, and yellow embroidered swans, designed by Bes-Ben, 1965.

As with many milliners of the time, the rationing of the war years caused Green-Field to embrace non-traditional materials. During a WWII-era (1939-1945) interview, Green-Field was quoted as saying, “Anything that makes people laugh at this point in world history may be said to have its own excuse for being.”

The Bes-Ben style had shifted from traditional, stylish hats to surreal and amusing designs in 1941. His sense of humor, combined with his high design skills and use of unique materials, made his work highly sought after.
Women's Bes-Ben hat of blue and red silk velvet and green and orange cotton plush. Features organic abstract shapes decorated with the stylized face of white and orange wool felt, orange feathers, and green faceted stones. One of 5 hats specially executed in conjunction with an exhibition of the works of Pablo Picasso at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957
Women's Bes-Ben hat of red, green, and fuchsia silk velvet, trimmed with two green plastic stones and peacock feathers. One of 5 hats was specially constructed in conjunction with an exhibition of the works of Pablo Picasso at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957.

Heralded as Chicago’s Mad Hatter,’ in the 1940s when his designs became increasingly whimsical and witty, incorporating unique elements such as kitchen utensils, dice, playing cards, or cigarettes and matchbooks.
Green-Field originally custom-made this piece for Mary Frances Ackerman, the wife of Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck.

Conical hat made of black tubing and beads, trimmed with three bumblebees and beaded veil,  c.1950.

The signature Bes-Ben panache extended to Green-Field’s personal style as well. He loved to dress up and was fond of brocade jackets, cashmere and jewelry. He was known for his extensive wardrobe and for the decorative items he collected on his travels. His shop at 938 North Michigan Avenue was full of pillows he brought back from around the world and was a popular social location.
Women's Bes-Ben hat of orange woven straw with green leaves and vegetables around the crown,  c.1955

As well as a talented millinery designer, Green-Field was also an astute businessman who knew how to market his hats. 
Benjamin Green-Field, owner of Bes-Ben and a model wearing his rabbit hat design.
Every summer, he would hold a sale where everything would be $5, an amazing deal considering that most of his hats sold for more than $100. People would line up at 2:15 a.m. for a chance to grab a hat flung out to the crowd by Green-Field himself.
A crowd outside Bes-Ben's store clamors for hats at 2:15 am, 1963, Time-Life Magazine.

It would take him an hour and a half to empty his entire store of around 400 hats, and then the shop would close for several weeks for a staff holiday. Green-Field would then leave on one of his famous around-the-world shopping trips; it's said he's been around the world more than 70 times, as documented by Bes-Ben's records from 1920-1988 [1].

One of his pieces, ‘Independence Day,’ was sold at auction for a record $18,400! The hat was adorned with an unfurled American flag with red, white, and blue firecrackers and stars.

In the 1960s, demand for hats declined. Note that men also stopped buying and wearing hats once President John F Kennedy took office in 1961 because he did not like wearing hats.

Green-Field, family, and clients generously donated more than 500 hats to the Chicago Historical Society (name changed to the "Chicago History Museum" in September 2006), plus all the trims, materials, and hat blocks from his shops. He also included many of his suits and robes from his personal wardrobe. A significant contribution funded the creation of the Benjamin B. Green-Field Gallery and the Bessie Green-Field Warshawsky (no connection to the famous auto parts magnate, Roy I. Warshawsky of Chicago's "Warshawsky and Company.") Gallery in memory of his sister.

Founded in 1974, the Costume Council supports the Chicago History Museum’s work to care for, conserve, interpret, and display items in the costume collection. The Museum has maintained and grew one of the world’s premier collections through the Council's efforts, with pieces dating from the eighteenth century to the present. The Council also generously supports the Museum’s costume-based exhibitions, furthering the public’s understanding of history through clothing. The Chicago History Museum is home to one of the largest collections of Bes-Ben hats in the world. 
The success of Bes-Ben enabled Green-Field to be a philanthropist. He founded and endowed the Benjamin B. Green-Field Foundation in 1987, an organization that continues to improve the quality of life for children and the elderly in Chicago to this day.

Benjamin Benedict Green-Field died at the age of 90 or 91 and is buried at Rosehill Cemetery in the Green-Field Family Room in the Mausoleum, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, in 1988.

Bes-Ben Shop at 620 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago 
Bes-Ben Inc., at 938 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago

1913 = 411
1940 = 509
1963 = 158

2021 = 5
Chicago: Loreta Corsetti Millinery, Eia Millinery Design, and Optimo Hats
Skokie: Chapeau Creations Hats
Glen Ellyn: Veiled By ChaCha

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

* Benjamin Benedict Green-Field's birth year, 1897, is the correct year from 
Rosehill Cemetery records. Everywhere else online shows Ben's birth year as 1898.

[1] The Chicago History Museum holds Bes-Ben, Inc., records from 1920-1988. What's included? Ledgers, photographs, customer card index files, state time inspection records; plus sundry correspondence, sales slips, passports, personal account books, and other materials relating to the Bes-Ben millinery shops in Chicago operated by Benjamin Green-Field and his sister Bessie Green-Field Warshawsky. Also included are records of Ben's world travels. 

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