Thursday, August 19, 2021

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

Benjamin 'Ben' Benedict Green-Field (1897-1988) was born in Chicago. At six, his father died, so his mother, Ida, became a milliner to support the family. After dropping out of high school, Green-Field also apprenticed in the millinery trade.

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

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

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 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 company shortly after getting married, Ben continued to sell hats for over 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 film "The Razor's Edge" premiere was topped with actual razor blades!
Women's Bes-Ben hat features a navy blue straw crown decorated on the 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 the WWII-era (1939-1945) interview, Green-Field said: "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. Green-Field's sense of humor, 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, his designs became increasingly whimsical and witty, incorporating unique elements such as kitchen utensils, dice, playing cards, 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 the decorative items he collected during 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 an astute businessman who knew how to market his hats. 
Benjamin Green-Field owned Bes-Ben and a model wearing his rabbit hat design.
Every summer, he would hold a sale where everything would be $5, a fantastic deal considering that most of his hats sold for more than $100. People would line up at 2:15 AM 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 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 grown into 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 world's largest collections of Bes-Ben hats. 
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.

Ben died at 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

    Loreta Corsetti Millinery
    Eia Millinery Design
    Optimo Hats
    Chapeau Creations Hats
Glen Ellyn:
    Veiled By ChaCha

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[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; 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. 


  1. Awesome and very important information on the grand fashion of women's hats - when ladies dressed elegantly, complete with hats and gloves. Thank you for this delightful piece of our history!

  2. Is it possible that there was a location on East Elm Street? Maybe in 18 East Elm?


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