Kennedy: Signal Mountain ‘Hat Lady’ thinks everyone needs a fashion statement

Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Betty Ewing, of Signal Mountain, has worn a hat to church every Sunday for 60 years. Here, she poses with part of her hat collection Wednesday.

People at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church on Signal Mountain call her "The Hat Lady." She even has the words "hat lady" in her email address.

Betty Ewing, 89, stands only 4 feet, 10 inches tall, but she likes to top off her silhouette with a colorful hat. And she has plenty to choose from. A closet in her townhouse is home to 60 hats, so she can go a whole year of Sundays without wearing the same hat twice.

"Our church has a little thrift shop across the street," the petite grandmother says. "Everybody is waiting for me to die so they can get some of my hats."

Friends have asked to borrow her hats for Kentucky Derby trips and tea parties. If someone says they don't think they can pull off wearing a hat, Ewing offers to shop with them for something that fits their personal style.

Ewing became a regular hat wearer in 1964 when she moved to Chattanooga, she said. She had picked up the style choice while living briefly in California, but by the mid-60s she was one of the only women in her mostly-Caucasian church to wear a hat. Hat wearing is still a tradition in some African American churches, she noted.

Ewing had grown up watching her mother cling tenaciously to the hat tradition at First Methodist Church in Dalton, Georgia, and decided she wanted to carry on the family tradition.

By the time the 21st century rolled around, hat-wearing in her Signal Mountain church had become so rare that her wardrobe choice almost seemed like an eccentricity. But she realized being the colorful outlier in a sea of gray heads was actually a nice way to express her personality.

"I stick out like a sore thumb at St. Timothy's," she said. "(But) I think if everybody in this world could find that magic trick to make themselves feel good about meeting the public, that would be absolutely wonderful. I pray for people to do it."

Time was, it was easy to find women's hats in Chattanooga stores. Downtown department stores such as Loveman's and Miller Brothers all had a big supply of women's hats. There were even stores downtown devoted almost entirely to hats.

[Read more about the former Loveman's department store in downtown Chattanooga.]

"Chattanooga doesn't have millinery shops anymore," Ewing says in an interview at her home. "Sometimes I can find one (at Belk) in Northgate Mall."

Ewing buys most of her hats today from catalogues, she says. She built most of her collection when her four children were young. Every year at Easter, she would buy each child a special outfit and splurge on a new hat for herself.

Ewing was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and moved to Dalton when she was 10. Her husband, Ralph, worked for a carpet company and was transferred to California briefly in 1958. That's where Betty Ewing got the idea to follow in her mother's fashion footsteps.

[Read more about Dalton, Georgia's carpet industry.]

"My mother wore hats as long as I could remember," Ewing says. "When she died, all my siblings said, 'You get Mom's hats.'"

Ewing once hosted a birthday party for a group of 10-year-old girls, and before she knew it, each of them had tried on one of her hats, she said. That tells her a love of hats is planted in everyone, she said.

"I always loved fashion. I think that's where it started," Ewing says of her hat hobby. "I've always admired people who take the time to make that extra step to look better."

Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected] or 423-757-6645.