The best way to describe 69-year-old Lana Turner? Total icon. A former muse of legendary street photographer Bill Cunningham, Turner lives and breathes style — if her outfit isn't perfect, she'll turn right back around to go change, even if it means being late for church. Her eclectic wardrobe is largely defined by vintage finds and items she's come across throughout her extensive travels around the world, though her pride and joy just might be her hat collection, which boasts more than 600 pieces, each one with a unique story behind it.
Turner tells The Zoe Report her love for fashion can be traced back to her Harlem upbringing, where she says she grew up being constantly surrounded by stylish women who taught her that fashion isn't just about how you look, it's about wearing quality pieces that make you feel something. These days, you can still catch Turner parading about town in one of her elaborate and meticulously styled get-ups — and you'd better believe she's probably wearing a hat.
What is your youngest style memory?
I can remember wearing some fairly basic things as a teenager. I seem to have had at the time a very conservative look, and mostly because, you know, you're living at home with your parents, unlike today, where people go out and figure out their style. I mean, we just did what we were expected to do, and I didn't have any issues with that.
I do remember something that made me just be my own self — I wore a very bright blue skirt, and I had on these royal blue, knee-length, tie-up boots. Now, do not ask me why I had these on. I remembered wearing them happily. This was in the '70s, so I was a little older by then. The skirt was a cotton wrap-around, and it was the boots, royal blue with white piping, that brought this outfit together.
I have over 600 hats. If I put a hat on my head, and it's not the right hat and I'm late for church, and it occurs to me what the right hat is going to be, I turn around and I come back.
Do you remember what inspired you when you were very young to have an interest in style? Was it people that were around you? Was it where you were living? What do you think sparked your interest in style?
Style for me evolved not so much by looking at a specific person, but simply being around an environment. The environment had to do with a few factors. It had to do with seeing women go to church. Black women in Black churches dressed every Sunday, even now. And as a little girl, when more people dressed for church, you couldn't help but be around it.
I grew up in Harlem. You would see the same thing even at a lunch counter. At Sylvia's Restaurant for example, when waitresses were bringing your food — and we're talking about the Black community now — they would have on these white uniforms with these starchy handkerchiefs. And of course they'd have on these long eyelashes, and you'd think they were all on stage, as opposed to just serving you food.
But they had this kind of air about them. It wasn't just what they had on, it was everything. And I think that that's when I, in retrospect, started putting all of that together. It is not just simply what you wear, it's how you wear it and what those things make you feel like.
You see I treat everything I do as art. It's a canvas. And like a painter, you know when the painting isn't quite finished, or it needs something else, or another color, or space, or something.
What piece instantly makes you feel more confident when you put it on, and why?
Getting dressed for me could start out with a handbag I want to carry, and then I figure out what might work with it. By the time I'm finished, it is possible that the handbag is no longer the object of my interest, because I have gone through a few revolutions of what this look was going to be. When it comes to what piece makes me feel confident, it could be anything. Anything I put on, I'm confident in. When I am not, I have been known to go [back and change]. I have over 600 hats. If I put a hat on my head, and it's not the right hat and I'm late for church, and it occurs to me what the right hat is going to be, I turn around and I come back.
I remember a very specific time when I did that very thing. I live on a street where it's a hill, so I get to the bottom of the hill on my way to church, and I come across a friend. And she sees me, and she yells out, and I said, "Hi." She says, "What are you doing?" "Well, I'm late for church," I said, "but I'm going back up and I'm going to put something else on my head." And she said, "But you already look great." And I said, "Oh, no. Wait 'til you see what I just decided. I know exactly what it is."
You see I treat everything I do as art. It's a canvas. And like a painter, you know when the painting isn't quite finished, or it needs something else, or another color, or space, or something. Well, that's how I get dressed. It's a canvas. And not that what I had on that day was totally wrong, but it was wrong for me because I knew it could be better.
I don't buy anything online. I like to touch, feel.
How did you get interested in hats? What is the obsession with hats? Where does that come from?
Well, here's the thing. I didn't know I was all that interested in hats until the mid '70s. I went to one of these holiday shows, where a number of vendors all have stuff they're selling. So there was a woman who had these hats, and she said, "Oh, you should try this on." Well, I wasn't opposed to it. It was a short brim, medium crown in camel, trimmed in black grosgrain. And I put that hat on, and I thought, this hat is really me. I loved that hat so much. I think that that was the beginning of something. It was at least the beginning of my awareness of how this one thing became an identity for me.
Do you buy hats in person always?
Oh, yes. I don't buy anything online. I like to touch, feel. It could be a thrift store, it could be I'm at an auction. I would say that of the 600 hats I own, I would say that roughly 70 percent are vintage, and the other 30 percent, I can think of a few milliners whose hats I really like. There's a woman in Detroit whose hat I saw in a museum, and I said, "I need to track this woman down." And I did, and subsequently, I'm sure I have at least 20 of her hats.
Do you have a favorite hat, or is that too difficult to choose?
Oh, that's hard. No. You couldn't possibly have a favorite. As long as it's not freezing outside, I'll always wear a black top hat with a little grosgrain bow in the back. I wear it just because. And it's not even anything formal I'm going to, I just wear it. Period.
I was in Asia last year, and this year too. I found this summer I was wearing my Vietnamese hat a lot, and my hat from Myanmar a lot. So those became favorites for the summer. Now who knows what happens next summer.
If money were no object, what would you want to invest in? What's one luxurious item that you would want to spend money on style-wise?
I would buy a tailor, that's what I would buy. I would have in my personal stash someone who came, pinned me up, and listened to me talk.
What item in your closet have you owned for the longest that you still wear?
You know, Bill Cunningham photographed me for about 28 years, and one of those dresses that I had on was red with a big, I don't know, splashy white daisy or something on it. I still own it, and I still wear it. I had this red cocky hat on. It was summer and I was crossing the street with my grandson who was little at the time.
Some photographs he didn't publish. And I think that was a photograph he sent to me. I don't know if he published that. I had that dress for a very long time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.