Mr John: Master of Invention
March 11, 2022

Mr John: Master of Invention

In the 1940s and 50s, American hat designers were at the forefront of millinery style. One of the most famous names of the time was Mr. John. Born in Germany as John Harberger in the early 1900s, he immigrated to the United States in 1919. He got his start in the fashion industry as an apprentice to his mother in her millinery salon.

In 1928 John entered a partnership with Frederic Hirst to form the John-Frederics label. It started with a small second story salon on Madison Avenue in New York City but quickly expanded to outlets in Palm Beach, Hollywood and several hundred department stores, becoming a multi-million dollar business by 1940. John-Frederics hats were famous in Hollywood, the most well-known being the straw and green velvet bonnet made for Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind in 1939. The duo is also credited with popularizing the World War II Doll Hat.

In 1948, Mr John dissolved his partnership with Frederic Hirst to form his own very successful company. He took the name John. P. John and opened his six-story salon - Mr John - on 57th St in New York. Like his contemporary Lilly Dache, his salon was extravagant and glamorous to provide clients with a luxurious and memorable experience. His salon was decorated in Louis XVI-style, with red velvet and ceramic figurines. At its peak, his multi-million-dollar business had over 200 employees making 16,000 hats a year under multiple labels.

Mr John’s hats were known for their elegance and glamour and he was a popular cultural figure. His work adorned the cover of Vogue in 1943, 1944, 1946 and 1953. He continued to make hats for Hollywood under his own label and, over his career, dressed the heads of stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Vanderbilt and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. 

Known for focusing on design and form, rather than elaborate decoration, Mr John was able to create hats for celebrities and socialites as well as the ordinary woman. He popularized wimple, crochet and soft hat styles, as well as folding straw hats for travel. He is also credited with introducing the shoulder strap bag, the stole, and ballet slippers for streetwear. In addition to hats, Mr John designed and marketed dresses, perfumes, jewelry and men’s ties and shirts.

As a result of the sharp decrease in hat wearing, Mr John closed his shop in 1970. However, he continued to make hats for private clients until his death in 1993. He was 91 years old. Mr John won numerous awards in his career including the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1943, the Neiman-Marcus Award in 1950 and the Millinery Institute of America Award in 1956.