By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
SANTA FE, N.M. – Here I am, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, unlikely beautiful because it’s a warren of mud-colored huts that look like big dirt-dauber nests.
Conformity is what’s so striking in Santa Fe, where the official authorized colors are buckskin and mission brown, the better to show off hanging red peppers and turquoise appointments. Depart from the earth tones at your own risk. City planners take steroids.
The natives are beautiful, too, with Native Americans and Hispanics and pioneer stock all converging and comingling. Again, earth tones prevail.
But better than the beauty is that this is a town where people unselfconsciously wear cowboy hats, and cowboy boots, which naturally makes you want a hat and boots for yourself.
The hat store is conveniently across the street from my hotel and must be where good beavers go when they die. Every kind of great hat you ever saw is here: cowboy hats, fedoras, Kentucky Derby-worthy bonnets. Conspicuous signs instruct customers to “Handle Hats by the Brim,” with an example on display of one that was pinched at the crown and ruined.
There is both poetry and science in hat-fitting, which I never realized before. Cindy, the knowledgeable clerk, says you want a hat “tight enough so the wind won’t blow it off; loose enough so you don’t get a headache.” That’s poetic, I think.
First she measures your head with a tape and finds, naturally, it falls between standard sizes. Then things really get interesting.
Nobody’s head is a perfect oval, she insists, so she seats you in a barber’s chair and crowns your imperfect head with the conformateur, a French invention from the 1840s, to make a paper template of your skull. One writer, Peter Fish, aptly described the conformateur as a cross between a homburg and a manual typewriter. It uses pins to punch a card in the shape of your head, which insures a perfect fit.
Once your skull’s been seen to, you must attend to your jaw, which has dropped on the floor after Cindy quotes the price of the hat that will be designed to fit your weird-shaped, between-sizes head. You can go the cheapskate route and get the hat made in rabbit. “When it rains, the rabbit runs for cover,” Cindy warns. Or you can be milquetoast and get a combo of rabbit and beaver. Or, you can spring for the best, all beaver, which will run you $1,000 plus shipping.
Let’s just say I spared a few beavers.
Next, on to the vintage boot store where it’s said Lyle Lovett buys his boots. It’s at the outer edge of the tony district, housed in a building not even buckskin in color.
Turns out that boot-fitting isn’t as exact a science as hat-fitting; you simply remove the newspaper stuffed inside the boots and struggle to pull them on. I try on pair after pair of used boots without any luck. And these are boots that have been broken in, to say the least. One pair of boots I try looks like they were worn by a bull rider who got stomped by the bull.
Turns out stylish people pay more for distressed boots than you’d imagine. I decided I couldn’t afford vintage boots unless I could find some at a garage sale.
I guess I’m an amateur at this comformateur business.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.