BOTH on and off the screen a Mr John hat was a must during the Forties and Fifties. John P. John, a celebrity milliner who puffed himself as much as his confections, hatted the stars in over 1,000 films; be it Vivien Leigh in her leghorn cartwheel decorated with green velvet ribbons for Gone with the Wind (1939), or Greta Garbo in her shibboleth, the slouch. Cecil Beaton consulted hm for the most memorable millinery on celluloid, the black and white exaggerations for Mr Fair Lady (1964).
There was nothing European about his hats. They were exuberant, bright, kitsch: brimming with a verve and pap that bordered on the camp, like their maker. Stephen Jones, a British milliner and fan, feels that Mr John's best expressions were summer hats reflecting 'that Doris Day sunniness of America'.
He was born Hans Harberger in Munich in 1902. After briefly studying medicine at the University of Lucerne and art at the Sorbonne, Harberger sold sketches to various Paris haute couture houses. In 1926 he sailed to New York and opened his own store in partnership with Frederick Hirst. He changed his name first to John Frederics and then, on parting company with Hirst in 1948 and founding his own salon, 'Mr John', to John P. John.
Once described as a fashion dictator, Mr John adopted Napoleonic dress and matching coiffure to stress the point. Mary Pickford, the Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe and endless society ladies were entertained and hatted at his white-and- gold rococo salon. Olivia de Havilland, speaking from Paris yesterday, recalls that he was 'a very gifted milliner. Never mind the film hats,' she insisted, 'the ones for current wear were just the best - and that's all there is to it]'
When BillyBoy, the bizarre costume collector and jewellery designer, met Mr John in New York in the Seventies, BillyBoy was wearing a 1950s Mr John hat. Mr John adjusted the hat on BillyBoy's head, saying, 'It's enough that you're not a woman wearing my hat, at least you can put it on at the right angle.'
'His hats were very 'First Lady of America' - very chunky with no frills,' BillyBoy said. 'They certainly weren't European couture, mysterious, dark and femme fatale. There was nothing scandalous about them - they weren't suited to the sort of woman who slips out of rooms to have secret affairs. In fact they were very Mrs Drysdale of the Beverly Hillbillies.'
Creativity aside, Mr John was an adept businessman. At his peak he employed 150 and enjoyed an annual turnover of dollars 7m. If impertinently, in his opinion, questioned over a bill he would reply, 'Madame, do you want a hat or something to show your husband's accountant?'
He shut up shop in the 1970s, issuing an epitaph for the trade. Women, he declared, are no longer chic. They have 'sold out' to hairdressers who 'make orthopaedic hairdos and French-fried curls'.