Mirror, Mirror: Topping off her millinery career

Designer Patricia A. Grooms has closed her South Phila. hat shop.
Designer Patricia A. Grooms has closed her South Phila. hat shop. (CHARLES FOX /Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 02, 2014

Countless brides know that a Vows Timeless Bridal Millinery headpiece - with its delicate netting and glittering rhinestones - is the chicest way to top off a gown.

But Patricia A. Grooms, a South Philadelphia-born soul sister, wasn't so sure when she started. With each silky confection she made over the last 26 years, she was proving to herself that she was the real couture deal.

"I'm a true-blue fashion designer," she often giggled to herself.

But after creating and selling more than a thousand hats during a storied but accidental career, Grooms closed her doors Saturday. The 63-year-old wife, mother, and grandmother - whose hats have been worn not just by local African American brides but also by brides of all backgrounds across the country - retired.

"My dream to be a fashion designer finally came true," Grooms said.

Boy, did it.

Over the years, Grooms' haute hats have been featured in national magazines from Elegant Bride to Modern Bride. Kleinfeld, the New York bridal powerhouse, sold Grooms' headpieces in its exclusive salon in the 1990s, and one of Grooms' cascading fingertip veils was worn by Jennifer Lopez in the 2004 movie Jersey Girl.

"The headpiece was made from rhinestones and pearls in a tiny, starburst pattern," Grooms said. "It was so pretty, and, oh, I was so excited."

The following year, Grooms worked with Timothy Crawford to create half a dozen extravagant headpieces for organizers to wear at the Salvador DalĂ­ opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"Patricia is like a mentor to me," said Crawford, a well-known West Philadelphia milliner. "She shared skills and techniques with me for most of my millinery career."

Just last year, Grooms created the sparkling headpiece for Deana Woodall for her nuptials to Caliph Gamble, son of Kenny Gamble and WRNB-FM (100.3) radio personality Dyana Williams.

The list of notable clients is long, but Grooms doesn't dwell on the who's who of her receipt book.

At least on this Friday afternoon, Vows is buzzing with friends - neighboring Fourth Street vendors - and family, all there to wish her well.

Most of the headpieces are gone from the shelves, but the wedding portraits are still up, including one of Grooms' 1970 wedding. (She made her headpiece, too, years before she acknowledged she had the talent for it.)

Grooms' 85-year-old mother, Mae Arnold, sits near her own 1945 sepia-tone wedding portrait and tells me about her daughter. Patricia was one of seven, you know. And she made all of the clothes for her Barbie dolls.

Grooms points out that her parents took away those dolls when she was 12. It was the early '60s - on the cusp of the civil rights movement - and young black working-class women were told they needed to stop frivolous dillydallying and prepare for work in the real world. You want to be a fashion designer? Seriously?

"It was the times," her mom said. "It's what we knew. . . ."

As a freshman at South Philadelphia High, Grooms told her guidance counselor she wanted to be a designer. The counselor told her to take typing, prepare for a "good job."

After high school, Grooms took a sewing job in a factory. She hated it. Then she was hired as a clerk typist for the city's Board of Education. She hated that, too.

She got married and raised children.

In the late 1970s, she started buying Barbies again, designing elaborate period gowns with Edwardian ruffles and Victorian lace. On a whim in 1981, she made a facsimile of Princess Diana's wedding gown and sent it to her.

Princess Diana wrote Grooms back, praising her work.

"I couldn't believe it," Grooms said. "I was just shocked."

After that, Grooms' confidence soared. She and her sister, Lois Arnold, found a space in 1987 on South Fourth - across from her current spot - to open a doll-costuming business and a beauty salon.

Two weeks before they were scheduled to open, Grooms panicked.

"We only had one month to make it in the business, and I didn't advertise a doll-costuming business," said Grooms, who worried she wouldn't get any foot traffic. "But there was a booming bridal business, so I said I would try bridal headpieces."

She scoured Fabric Row for materials, and vintage shops for hats, and she made 40 to sell on opening day. In the first week, she sold five or six hats. Her headpieces retail for $200 to $2,000. Bye-bye, doll clothes.

With the closing of the hat store, Grooms' sister will expand her next-door chemotherapy cap and wig business into the roughly 700-square-foot space. And Grooms hopes to continue selling her designs online with the help of her two daughters.

Regardless, she's happy. She's content.

She's a bona fide designer.

"And," Grooms says, "that's all that matters."


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704

@ewellingtonphl

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