Born: John Pico Harberger in Munich, 14 March 1906; immigrated to the U.S., 1919. Education: Studied medicine, University of Lucerne, and art at the Sorbonne and l'école des Beaux Arts, Paris. Career: Milliner, Mme Laurel, dressmaker, New York, 1926; partner (with Fred Fredericks), John-Fredericks, milliners, 1929-48, with shops in New York, Hollywood, Miami, and Palm Beach; formed independent company, Mr. John, Inc., New York, 1948-70; designed for private clients, from 1970. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1943; Neiman Marcus award, 1950; Millinery Institute of America award, 1956. Died: 25 June 1993, in New York.
"It Had to Be Hats," with Nanette Kutner, in Good Housekeeping (New York), June 1957.
Lambert, Eleanor, World of Fashion: People, Places, Resources, New York and London, 1976.
Morris, Bernadine, and Barbara Walz, The Fashion Makers, New York, 1978.
McDowell, Colin, Hats: Status, Style, Glamour, London, 1992.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.
Fredericks, Pierce G., "Mad Hatter," in Cosmopolitan (New York), April 1951.
"John P(ico) John," in Current Biography (New York), October 1956.
Morris, Bernadine, "Fashion's Mad Hatter Turns Conservative for Spring," in the New York Times, 7 January 1966.
Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Mr. John, 91, Hat Designer for Stars and Society," [obituary] in the New York Times, 29 June 1993.
"John P. John," [obituary] in Current Biography (New York), September 1993.
"My business," John P. John told Good Housekeeping in June 1957, "is strictly an individual business. When I go, there will be no more Mr John. I have only one worry: when I do go, should I reach heaven, what will I do? I know I cannot improve on the halo." Ironically, John, who had made almost every kind of head covering other than a halo, saw the demise of his kind of milliner on earth; by the time of his death in 1993, perhaps even the halo was obsolete. As early as 1957, he was already on the defensive, arguing, "A hat cannot actually give one golden curls if the hair is mouse-colored and stringy; it cannot lift a face, pay overdue bills, subtract ten years from one's age, or transform a plain soul into a reigning princess. But it can lend practically any woman a temporary out-of-herself feeling. For the right hat creates a desired mood, and that isn't fiction or fancy, but fact, fact, fact."
Like his contemporaries Lilly Daché and Halston who would follow later (translating the concept to apparel, but retaining John's contradictory modes of shape reductivism and theatrical sparkle), John successfully combined the glamor of a custom business with a wide-reaching appeal. He could create extraordinary hats for exceptional women. At the same time, he was a hero to countless middleclass women who copied his styles or had them copied by local milliners. John's hats adorned the cover of Vogue many times, in issues hitting newstands in 1943, 1944, 1946, and 1953.
From the opening of his own business in the 1920s, after apprenticing with his mother through the 1960s, John was an important milliner, never fixed in one style but producing eclectic variations of romantic picture hats, snoods, subdued cloches, and other forms. It was form indeed that was essential to John: his hats were sculptural, shaped to flatter the face, outfit, and presence. His historicist pieces, in particular, could use surface decoration, but the effect of a Mr. John hat nonetheless always resided in the shape. As Anne-Marie Schiro of the New York Times described in June 1993, "In the 1940s and 1950s, the name Mr. John was as famous in the world of hats as Christian Dior was in the realm of haute couture. At a time when other milliners were piling on flowers, feathers, and tulle, Mr. John was stripping hats naked, relying on pure shape for effect." Turbans, berets, and snoods—a specialty—were supple shapes in favor with John and were often shown in the style magazines with American fashion. He could, however, also cut crisp shapes and bow a brim to flatter the face and forehead to accompany Dior, Schiaparelli, and Balenciaga. For all the flamboyance of his own life and all the drama that he could vest in a suite of picture hats that ever seemed to belong at Tara, John could also create what Vogue characterized as a "strict" black hat of utmost simplicity in 1951. Even at their most whimsical and wild, John's hats were flattering to the wearer and to the ensemble of dress.
Eugenia Sheppard of the New York Herald Tribune called him "the artist among milliners" in July 1956 and he self-consciously courted the rubric of art, including collections with the themes of modern art and style history, and a sense of the avant-garde. It was one piece of historical recreation, however, that made John most famous: his millinery for Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. Widely copied, the Gone with the Wind hats confirmed John's longtime association with Hollywood and women of style, including Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gloria Swanson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and the Duchess of Windsor. His hats were also worn in films by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express. By the time Mr. John closed in 1970, hats were largely démodé.
Custom-made millinery is a matter of extreme codependency between client and milliner. If it is the purpose of the hat to flatter, the milliner, too, must practice a psychology of intervention and flattery. When Pierce Fredericks dubbed John the "Mad Hatter" in Cosmopolitan in April 1951, the madness was only of energy; rather, clients enjoyed John's "diplomatic manner." John used only one house model, a Miss Lynn, for many years; she was his type for countless hats, many of which he made directly on her head. He was also famous for his miniature hat collection, prototypes for his own hats and historical recreations based upon his study in museums and historical references. John lived in and defined the golden age of millinery.