This is the first in our series “What’s in a Label” and we start with Leslie James hats.
The first hat I purchased was at an antique store in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas. I was in middle school and the hat was a faux leopard number, probably from the 1940s, with the labels Innes and Leslie James.
Of course, I knew about Innes. It was the finest and largest department store in town, originally founded in 1897. By the time I was shopping there, with my mom, the store was a Macy’s. But the other label was a mystery. Who was Leslie James?
As my vintage hat collection continued to grow, I purchased many more vintage hats with these two labels. It was evident that Leslie James was one of the preferred milliners at Innes. In the pre-internet era, however, there wasn’t a good way of finding any more information about the label.
Fast forward to today and my thriving vintage fashion company. When a client from my hometown sent me a consignment of fabulous hats featuring none other than Leslie James it was finally time to unravel this mystery.
Even using Google the search was slow going. It was obvious that Leslie James had been a very prominent milliner through at least the early seventies based on the hat styles I had seen over my years of collecting. But there was very little information online about her, just sales listings for her vintage hats.
I eventually stumbled upon a page written by Bud Toye about his grandfather James Druce. Suddenly the mystery was revealed. Leslie James wasn’t a woman at all. Not only wasn’t Leslie James a women, she was two men – James Druce and Leslie Masters who combined their names to make the Leslie James brand.
From my research, Leslie Masters moved from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles as a young man and by the early 1930s was designing hats for movie studios. I found an article on Hollywood hats that quotes Leslie Masters and references his work.
As Toye explains in his post, James Druce ended up in the millinery business after a career in sales. Once the partnership was formed in the late 1930s, Druce ran the business side and Masters was creative director. Toye’s post on his grandfather is a wonderful tale of a self-made man who was always dressed to the nines. Toye even has memories of visiting the factory as a young child.
The Leslie James millinery company was located in Los Angles. I found an 1935 article in the LA Times announcing the purchase of their plant at 728 Hill Street in downtown Los Angles. According to Toye, at one point, Leslie James had hundreds of employees making hats. After writing the post about his grandfather, Toye received a marvelous photo of a woman working on a hat in the factory. The photo was submitted by the women’s granddaughter.
Druce was over twenty years older and when he finally retired in 1953, he turned the firm over to Masters. There are various news articles and ads from the 1950s referring to Leslie James Masters, Leslie James and Mr. Leslie. There’s even a few ads with a photo of the famous “Mr. James”.
An article from 1955 on California designers refers to Leslie Masters of Leslie James. Are we confused yet?
The last reference I found to Leslie Masters was in a newspaper article in 1975, where he was referred to as “one of the last couture hat designers around “. James Druce died in 1956. Masters in the 1990s.
Whatever the provenance or whoever was in the ads, Leslie James hats were always of the finest quality. Their range of hats not only included the latest trends but also timeless designs. Although that original hat I purchased is long gone, Leslie James remains one of my favorite milliners.