Benjamin B. Green-Field, or Chicago’s Bes-Ben

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Chicago this spring was to see the Mainbocher exhibition (more about that later) at the Chicago History Museum. I had a feeling that there would be more of interest there than that exhibition, and I  was not disappointed. I was delighted to see that the fashion gallery was named for Chicago milliner Benjamin Green-Field, who worked under the label, Bes-Ben.

Benjamin and his sister Bessie, (get it? Bes, Ben.) opened a millinery shop in Chicago in 1919. The business was successful, and by the late 1920s there were five Bes-Ben shops in Chicago.  In 1939 Bessie got married and left the business. As WWII loomed, Benjamin had to get creative as materials began to get scarce and were eventually rationed. He began to incorporate non-traditional millinery materials into his designs. Everything from toy animals to playing cards became a part of a Bes-Ben hat.  Women loved them.

The Bes-Ben material is scattered around the galleries, but it’s not hard to recognize it when you see it.  This hat was designed in 1957 to celebrate the opening of an exhibition in Chicago of the work of Pablo Picasso.

In an area devoted to the industries and stores of Chicago, I found this display of five Bes-Ben hats.

“Women’s hat, black velvet with chenille bees, early 1960s”

Top: “Navy straw with applique butterflies, 1956”

Bottom: “Grey wool with floral embroidery, 1960s”

“Woman’s hat, black linen with embroidery and mirrors, 1958”

Bes-Ben hats did not come cheap, but at the end of each season all remaining hats were put on sale for five dollars each. The only catch was that you had to be outside the store at 2 am the day of the sale, when the hats were thrown out of the window.  Lucky catchers of hats paid their $5 and went home with a real prize!

Not only were his hats whimsical, Green-Field himself was a bit of a character. He wore this suit in the 1970s.

Today, Bes-Ben hats are highly collectible – the crazier the design, the higher the price tag.

12 Comments

Filed under Curiosities, Designers, Museums

12 responses to “Benjamin B. Green-Field, or Chicago’s Bes-Ben

  1. this is such a wonderful exhibit! Thank YOU for it! As YOU know – very few people know our greatest designers started careers in millinery and visual merchandising. While I was too young to fully appreciate the creativity – I remember the hats and clothes of that period (late 50’s) and early 60’s. I think that is what spurred my interest in fashion / art as a career! The Brits could learn a thing/2 from this one! A major era for our greats – Estevez-Blass- Halston – so many started this way . Think Pucci with this jacket!!!?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is so interesting that many of the late 20th century designers started out as milliners. Perhaps they saw the handwriting on the wall, concerning the demise of the hat, and realized they had to branch out.

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  2. Interesting, Lizzie! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ceci

    Never heard of Bes-Ben hats so thank you so much, these are stellar! The bees! The butterflies! I get anxious in crowds but would SO go stand outside at 2 AM in hopes of snagging a prize!

    ceci

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Those are fun hats! America should reclaim its mad hattery 🙂 Can’t leave it all to us Brits at the races…

    Like

  5. kickshawproductions

    We will be mounting a show of Bes Ben hats next year at the Fashion History Museum from an important private collection in Chicago.

    Like

  6. I have been to the Chicago History Museum MANY times and never found this story. Thanks so much for your sharp eyes and endless fount of knowledge!

    Like

  7. Inga Calvin

    I applaud your excellent research on this – and so many other topics. Clothing is such an overlooked, yet significant, component of society & history. Thank you – Inga Calvin, Anthropology Department, University of CO-Boulder

    Like

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