Palm Springs Hat Parade Rallied Locals in Midcentury Times

The desert has long been a destination for fanciful fashions. Here's one trend we really miss.

Maggie Downs Fashion & Style, History

Creative entrants of the Palm Springs Hat Parade went all out, apparently ignoring any neck pain in hopes of winning high-value prizes. 

It’s time to bring back the “whimsical” hat. Hear me out. 

Spend enough time in the desert, and you’ll find yourself in a hat anyway, as there’s no better way to deflect the brutal rays of the sun. 

“Sunscreen can’t do everything, and it can’t last as long as a hat,” says Austin Gray, a Los Angeles–based milliner who serves on the board of the U.S. Milliners Guild. “Put on a hat, and you’re covered.”

Hats happen to have a vibrant history in the desert, linking the early days of the Palm Springs “village” (as the city was known before incorporation) to swanky, midcentury society to the vacationers of today. 

Consider the Palm Springs Hat Parade. If you think our music festivals are a fashion spectacle now, you should’ve gotten an eyeful of this annual event. It’s where the elegant and eccentric mingled for Instagram-worthy style moments — had Instagram existed in the 1950s. 

It all began with the “Palm Springs Hat,” the creation of Melba Bennett, who owned Deep Well Ranch with her husband, Frank. The couple often took guests on long, rambling horseback rides through the desert. During lunch stops, Melba plucked colorful wildflowers, sticking the stems along the brim of her jaunty straw hat.

She donned the flower-trimmed hat for the biggest event of the year, Desert Circus, an annual bash in April that had ballooned into the United States’ fourth-largest parade. The straw hat — rolled slightly upward on the sides, with a brimful of flowers and silky ribbons hanging down the back — was such a hit, women clamored for their own. 

The look became emblematic of Palm Springs style as hat shops popped up along Palm Canyon Drive and on the grounds of the storied Desert Inn. High society events included hat luncheons, with ladies donning their fanciest fascinators and sophisticated sunhats. 




The snowballing hat craze turned into a full-fledged avalanche in fall 1958, when Desert Sun columnist Hildy Crawford launched the Palm Springs Hat Parade as a fundraiser. 

While the first parade took place at the Chi Chi, a buzzy supper club, it moved in later years to the El Mirador Hotel, the Tennis Club, and the glam Riviera resort, where 2,500 partygoers could squeeze into the hotel and elaborate headdresses occasionally became tangled in the chandeliers. The event eventually partnered with Desert Circus in the springtime.

Imagine crowds in all manner of inventive caps and haberdashery: Folks peering out from under cowboy hats tipped downward, heavy with blooms. Ladies in classic boaters trimmed with flouncy bows, as if they stepped right out of an impressionist painting. Hometown celebrities wearing whimsical straw hats depicting local landmarks. 

Parade participants competed in different categories, including the traditional Palm Springs Hat, an homage to Melba’s original; men’s and children’s categories; and a commercial division, with entries from local businesses. Prizewinners took home sable scarves, mink stoles, TVs, trips to Vegas, or a week at the legendary Golden Door spa, motivating contestants to build bigger, more fanciful hats each year. 


It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a trendsetting chapeau for the Palm Springs Hat Parade, shown here in 1962 at the Chi Chi club.

As the parade grew, the designs went well beyond Melba’s florals. One hat was a miniature Palm Canyon Drive with palm trees, illuminated shops, and battery-operated cars. A mermaid washed ashore with a glittery, sea-inspired headpiece, while someone clad simply in a pink leotard tied a tall, porcelain cat to her head. There was a birdcage hat with real birds, as well as a hat made with the feathers of snow geese that had been shot, killed, and plucked clean at the Salton Sea. 

One lady, boasting cerulean hair to match her blue hat, was accompanied by poodles that had also been dyed blue. Another lady’s Palm Springs Aerial Tramway fedora made the news. The mountain station balanced atop her head, while the desert station perched on a trailer that followed her around; a tiny tram made its way up and down the cables that connected the two.

Other intricate headdresses included a wedding cake hat, a violin hat (no word on whether the instrument played), and a massive Eiffel Tower accessorized with $100 worth of orchids.

The hat parade lost momentum in the mid-1980s, as did Desert Circus. Nowadays, you’re more likely to see people lounging poolside in the statement hats that have become ubiquitous on Instagram — wide brims embroidered with “out of office” or “rosé all day” — or simple fedoras to offset long, flowy sundresses.

It’s long past time to return to the whimsy of the parade, using our chapeaus to make a real statement about who we are and the place we love. Bring on the glittery headwear. Make room for the avant-garde. Stick a cat on your head.

“At some point, our hair became more important than our hats. But hats are sculptures,” Gray says. “They are fun and stylish and a means of expression. Everyone should be wearing a hat.”