What do you do when the water from your hat’s three-tiered fountain spills onto an unsuspecting crowd? You keep walking down the red carpet at the Women’s Council longstanding Mad Hatter Tea.
Of course, outrageous hats with better landscaping than your own home are expected—and celebrated—at the spring fundraising event, which is open to the public and supports the Dallas Arboretum’s A Woman’s Garden.
“It’s just a fun way to get people into the garden at a beautiful time of year. Azalea bushes are blooming. It’s gorgeous,” says former Women’s Council president Linda Spina. “It’s a great way to introduce people to the Dallas Arboretum.”
The annual party features a fashion show, tea, and over-the-top hats, inspired by that year’s theme. It may be hard to believe, but it puts the Kentucky Derby to shame. “We’ve had hats that have had a goldfish bowl, with live goldfish in it, with water,” Spina says. “We’ve had a hat with butterflies on it, and she brought a bottle of butterflies and did a butterfly release. What people come up with is so incredible.”
Carole Ann Brown and Scotty Buehler founded the event in 1989 as a way to promote the Dallas Arboretum and raise money for the garden. The crazy hats were at the core of the tea from the get-go, but over the years, the party grew and grew, eventually capping out at 500 guests. Spina says it raises anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 each year.
The 2020 party had to be canceled (like everything else) because of the pandemic and the 2021 in-person tea featured some unexpected rain. Nevertheless, the Women’s Council is saddling up for the 2022 event, which will take place on April 20 at the Arboretum.
Although the party is still months away, members of the Women’s Council sipped champagne and milled around Stanley Korshak during after-hours party—alas, no hats in sight—on Tuesday evening to announce the 2022 theme: Dallas. (Cue the iconic soap opera theme song.)
Chosen by the event chairman and Women’s Council president, past themes have included “Golden Age of Hollywood,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and, the most recent example, “Out of Africa” in 2021.
Speaking about the 2022 theme, this year’s Women’s Council president Lisa Laughlin says she and chair Claire Catrino wanted something (extremely) close to home.
“We both wanted something that was near and dear to our heart,” Laughlin says. “So, what better than ‘deep in the heart of Texas’? I’m from Big D!”
Laughlin says she hopes the theme will showcase everything the city has to offer, from the Trinity River and its rich arts scene to its history. After all, there’s more to Dallas than JFK, says past chair Venise Stuart.
As soon as Catrino made the theme announcement at Stanley Korshak, party guests began murmuring about how they could best represent Dallas on their heads. There was talk of the city skylines, the Dallas Cowboys, and maybe even someone riding in on a horse.
No matter what, though, come April, amateur milliners will flaunt their imaginative, over-the-top headpieces tributing Big D to a panel of celebrity judges, hoping to be crowned a winner of competition categories like “best group” and “most true to theme.”
(While next year’s celebrity judges are still TBA, past lineups have included former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston, designer Rachel Zoe, and Dallas actress Linda Gray.)
And, as always, the hats will be big. Often, folks use sticks to help prop up their hats, says Debbie McKeever, who won “best group” back in 2019 for her opulent “Great Gatsby”-themed headgear. McKeever hand-makes her own hats but says each can cost hundreds of dollars for materials and take up to 20 hours to craft and perfect.
But while the party is great people-watching, at the end of the day, it’s all about supporting the Woman’s Garden, says Spina.
“The Arboretum is such a gem for the city of Dallas and I love that this event, because of the outrageous hats and the fun and the frivolity, that it introduces more people to the Arboretum,” she says. “It’s such fun way for people to participate and raise money.”