Vince Corvelli is keeping felt hat tradition alive; It’s keeping him alive too.
By Jeffrey Anderson | Photographs by Andy DelGiudice
Vince Corvelli often looks up from his work after midnight and realizes he ought to be sleeping. His work is solitary, and the hours fly by, yet he is never alone. The third generation Italian-American hatter says he talks to the felt hats and Panamas that he cleans, repairs and blocks. “The hat doesn’t talk [back] to me, but it tells me what shape it wants to be in. So I just follow the hat.”
When Corvelli is working on hats in the basement storage area of his Bethesda garden apartment, he has no problems. “I got a radio down there,” he says, “and sometimes I just dance around like a fool.”
Corvelli has been working on hats since he was 12. He turns 90 next year. He says being a hatter keeps him alive, and healthy. Though his generation’s expression of personal style is long gone, a marginal resurgence of Fedoras, Trilbys and Stingy brims like Brad Pitt used to wear begs his knowledge of what once was an essential of every man’s wardrobe.
He takes customers by appointment. Some have been with him for 40 years. Lack of sophistication does not offend him, and he is happy to instruct novice hat owners. That impulse to grab a felt Fedora by the pinch in its crown, like in the movies? Don’t do it.
During one of District Dig’s visits to his studio, Corvelli demonstrates proper handling: Hold the front and back of the brim with your fingertips near the base of the crown and fit snugly on your head, about a finger’s width above the ears. Depending on your preference, snap the brim down in front, ear to ear. When not wearing the hat, rest it on its crown, so the brim does not flatten out. Show the hat respect, and it will bring you respect.
Use a full length mirror when trying on a hat. It’ll tell you if it accentuates your face and body. And never rule out wearing a hat, Corvelli says. There’s one for everyone. “Most women say, ‘I don’t look good in a hat.’ My wife used to to say that. But I told her she looked terrific in a hat. So does a man. Makes you look smarter for some reason.”
Corvelli is the last of his breed, and he has no intention of hanging it up. What drives a man to plie a dying craft in a trade that has been in and (mostly) out of style for 70 years? Corvelli’s work as a hatter is rooted in family tradition, but there’s more to it than that.
Corvelli’s grandfather, Vincent, for whom he is named, came to the United States in the early 1900s from Naples, where he had worked at the Borsalino Hat Company, makers of the finest felt hats in the world.
His father, Nicholas, arrived in 1917. Corvelli and his three siblings came later. When he was old enough, Corvelli went to work at his grandfather’s valet shop, Golden Star Valet, in Northwest D.C., in the 1930s. “It was a little bit of everything that a man would wear,” he says.
The shop consisted of small booths; customers would leave their shoes in a front booth to be cleaned and repaired, and then enter a tiny changing room. “We hooked up a doorbell and the customer would ring the bell when they were ready for us to come get their suit,” Corvelli says. “We’d use a damp sponge to dampen the fabric, then a hot iron to dry it. We’d also press the fabric to put the crease back in it.”
Hats required special care. Greasy hair products such as pomade or vaseline joined with sweat and caused stains around the hat band. That required a solvent, sometimes gasoline, before the felt was dampened. Then the hat was placed in a contraption that spun it until it was “damp dry,” then into a “hot box,” to steam dry. “It was very technical,” says Corvelli.
Hat blocking is an artisanal skill. Wood hat blocks generally are made of poplar, because it’s light and absorbs moisture. Some are flat on top, and some have an indentation or a raised edge running front to back. Some are tapered, or allow for a pinch in the crown. The hatter sets the hat on the appropriate wooden block according to its size, contour and shape, dampens the felt, steams it, smooths out the bumps, then lets it air dry. “Once they dry they stay that way, so you have to be careful,” Corvelli says.
To shape the brim, the hatter turns the hat upside down, drops it into a circular wooden block that looks like a toilet seat, resting the brim on the top edge. The hatter rolls the felt brim over the edge of the block, covers it with a damp cloth that is tied down with a cord, stretches the cloth tight, and steams and irons the covered brim until stiff.
Corvelli also can take a thrift store hat with a disheveled brim, dampen it, pinch the edges, and roll each side over the contour of his stomach. “You have to have a beer belly,” he says. “Just a little trick we do with brims.”
A full service hatter is hard to find. In the heyday of hats, a valet shop would have a block for all sizes and styles. Dry cleaners eventually cut into the business, Corvelli says, and with less blocks on hand, they’d end up altering the shape of the hats. “Men got discouraged and wouldn’t get the hat cleaned,” Corvelli says. “It’d get worn out, then they’d have to buy a new one, which got expensive.”
Vintage photos of street scenes, parades and sporting events show virtually every man (and many women) wearing a hat. But by the early 1960s, they were going out of style, and a new sense of style was coming into vogue, says Corvelli. “President Kennedy, he had that gorgeous head of hair. Why would you cover it up with a hat?”
Being a hatter—in fact the son and grandson of hatters—Corvelli has been a cultural observer of pedestrians as well as the upper crust. Hats are an equalizer in that regard. “Men who wear hats want to stand out in a crowd,” he says. (Ironically, Corvelli does not wear hats anymore. “I’ve got a long oval head, like a watermelon or something,” he says.)
Growing up in the valet business afforded Corvelli a certain status among his peers. Working for his father at age 12 he was able to make a buck a day—five cents per hat he cleaned. “Consequently, I wasn’t into sports,” says Corvelli. “My father insisted that I work. So at 3 o’clock, when school was over, I went to work at the shop. Kids would say let’s go play ball, and I’d say no, I gotta work. But they were jealous of me because I had money.”
D.C. was like a small town in those days. Corvelli’s family lived in Northwest, where he attended Coolidge and Roosevelt high schools. “You could go downtown to Woodies, Garfinckel’s, the big stores, Hecht Company, and you could meet someone you knew all the time,” he says. “There was a big clock at 13th and F that was a meeting place. We’d say meet me at the clock, and we’d go to the Capitol Theater.”
Status was conferred in other ways, and there were brushes with power and celebrity. “My dad did Harry Truman’s hats, Truman was a haberdasher” says Corvelli. He recalls a tour of Truman’s Key West summer residence. “They took us upstairs to the bedroom and said please don’t touch anything. But there was a hat sitting on the table and I picked it up, and sure enough my dad had worked on the hat. You could tell by the stitching, he put a new leather band in it, and my dad had a kind of box stitch that he used, and I could tell he had worked on it. He probably designed that stitch as well.”
In those days, D.C. was segregated in more than one manner, Corvelli says. Germans lived in enclaves, as did Italians and Jews. African American were the most segregated, yet black men were crucial to the hat business, especially when hats started to disappear from the white mainstream.
Catering to people of all backgrounds has given Corvelli a unique perspective on D.C. His father’s shop, Blue Flame Valet, was located at 7th and F Streets Northwest, which saw heavy rioting in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Here, however, Corvelli offers his own take on the momentous events:
“It was bad. [Rioters] came down 7th street where businesses that catered to black people were. These were Jewish shop owners that extended credit, but then charged them so much interest they could never get out of debt. So they came down there, breaking all the windows, setting fires. If you were black you were a ‘soul brother’ though, and they wouldn’t hurt [those] businesses. But me being in the dry cleaning business I thought of this great idea, I started writing ‘Soil Brother’ on the front window and they wouldn’t break it.”
In more contemporary times Corvelli has continued to rely on black customers for business. “They never gave up on hats, so for years I depended on them.”
But one time a [Secret Service] truck rolled up in front of his family’s house in Bethesda with a completely different request. “The guy gets out of the truck and he comes up with Hillary Clinton’s hat,” says Corvelli. “She had worn it on Air Force One and somebody sat on it, and I had to get it back into shape. Little did she know all my grandchildren tried it on.”
Corvelli’s wife passed away about four years ago, and his children are not interested in inheriting his business, which goes by American Hatters. He’s mentored aspiring hatters and had a partner or two over the years, but one relationship that stands out better than most is with a friend in Virginia who shares a complementary interest in hats.
Many years ago, Corvelli had a customer named Ray, who liked wearing hats and would bring them up to Bethesda to Corvelli’s home studio. (Ray asked The Dig to withhold his last name for privacy purposes.) “He was charging me $48 to clean and block a hat, and I said ‘You gotta teach me some of this,’ because I got limited income,” Ray says.
Ray would come up to Corvelli’s apartment on Fridays and the master hatter would show him the tricks of the trade. Then they they’d go to lunch. “That’s all it cost me,” says Ray, who would always pay.
In time, Ray started tending to his own hats, but he was more interested in the tools and devices of the trade, which fit nicely with Corvelli’s craft. It didn’t take Ray long to notice that Corvelli was working with implements not just from another era but another century. “You don’t need great tools, but you need everything tightened down,” Ray says vaguely.
For instance, Corvelli was working with an ancient brim cutter, so Ray designed a modern, metal version of the essential tool: It’s like a T-square with a curved top that rests at the base of the crown and a blade set into the handle that can be guided around the brim of the hat. Then, he had an idea to improve the process: “Vince was cutting brims on a piece of wood, but a metal blade over time will start to follow the grain of the wood. I designed a piece of glass instead and so now the cut edge is perfect and clean.”
Corvelli had welcomed hat appreciators into his world before, with mixed results, but he and Ray understood one another. “We had an agreement,” Ray says. “I wasn’t looking to get into the hat business, so my interest wasn’t going to hurt him. Besides, I’m a piss-poor businessman.”
Ray considers he and Corvelli “hat rescuers.” They find discarded hats at estate sales, Goodwill stores and thrift stores. Though neither man makes a lot of hats, there is little to nothing they can’t do with even the most mistreated ones. “Except for moth holes,” Ray says. “You can only do so much. If it’s too far gone, it ain’t coming back.”
Both men also share a world-weary view of fashion and culture and the hat’s place in it—not so much fatalism but realism. “Nobody wears hats anymore,” says Ray. “They think they ought to cost $2 like a baseball cap. But then there’s these people who go to London and come back with a $200 fur felt hat, and then they’ll pay almost that much for a wool one here in the States. It doesn’t make any sense.”
And even though specialty hat stores exist, and many men’s clothing stores stock hats, and vendors hawk hats at the train station, Ray still finds there’s a lack of knowledge out there. “You go in there and they don’t know anything,” he says. “People are too…I don’t know, maybe it’s just that times have changed. You ever hear the expression, ‘Tight as Dick’s hatband?’ You know where that comes from? Ever see Dick Tracy, the detective? Ever see his hat blow off in the wind? That’s where that comes from.”
Between the two of ‘em, Ray estimates he and Corvelli probably have a couple hundred hat blocks and as many hats. “It’s all he’s been doing since he was ,” Ray says of his friend. “He’d be a bored man if all he had to do was sit around his apartment watching TV and thinking about his wife. The hat business is keeping him alive.”
Down in Corvelli’s basement recently, rescued hats hang from the walls above cluttered shelves of cleaning supplies, epoxies and polishes, accoutrements such as feathers and grosgrain ribbons, and vintage devices such as a Jiffy Original steamer from the 1940s. Old leather belts and ties that he fashions into hat bands dangle from hooks. “You have to improvise sometimes,” Corvelli says. “You just have to use every trick with these hats.”
So what happens to these remnants of the 20th century that fill this basement work space—and Corvelli’s life—when he passes away? He says he has willed his hat blocks to a fellow hatter in Florida named Tony Lippi who sends him customers who reside closer to the District. Assuming he survives Corvelli, Ray most certainly will want to be the beneficiary of tools he has repaired and devices he has fashioned, such as the brim cutter.
He’s not getting it back anytime soon, that’s for sure. “This is the love of my life,” says Corvelli, clutching the custom-made tool.
So for the time being, it’s business as usual. The coming of spring means customers will be bringing in their winter hats to be cleaned. Panama hats in need of repair and blocking will be prepped for the summer. And a tradition will remain alive.
“This is my life,” he says. “Since I lost my wife I spend a lot of my time down here. But I would’ve gone crazy if I didn’t have hats. It’s just so stressless, you know, it’s just you and the hat.”