“This is where Dracula would hide,” said Elena Mușat, our tour guide, as we stepped through a virtually hidden, narrow passage in Bucharest. The smell of warm pretzels from the corner cafe we had passed lingered in the air as we entered the passageway, while the scarlet walls and the sunlight pouring in from the curved glass ceilings warmed our perception of the alley. This was Pasajul Englez – the English Passage – once home to an English-style hotel, a high-end brothel and now an apartment building for the citizens of Bucharest. While international visitors and I walked through the passage, we noticed a cardinal red sign halfway through: Palarii „la mesterul Nicu”. Some of us, members of the Romanian diaspora, read the sign aloud. The rest followed the white hand whose finger pointed to a display window on our left, where every hat imaginable hung on pegs: fedoras, sun hats, panama hats. Through the frosted glass of the door adjacent to the display, a man fiddled with the knobs on his antenna radio until traditional folk music filled the alley’s silence with song. Later, I returned to hear my homeland’s forgotten history through the words of this man: Bucharest’s oldest hat maker.
At 92, Nicolae Zdârcă carries heavy memories of the second World War, communism, the show-trial execution of president Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s growing diaspora and the pandemic. While he has lived through his share of tough historical moments, Zdârcă does not let them deter his mood, which seems eternally joyful. “He’s 92, but he has the spirit of a 29-year-old,” said Mușat, who had met Zdârcă through her tours. In his plaid shirt and knee-length shorts, Zdârcă’s eyes widen at the sight of a friendly face near his door. He stands at his waist-high desk, with a hat block in hand, and fills Pasajul Englez with infectious laughter.
“If I were to be born again, I would still become a hat maker,” Zdârcă told me in Romanian one day while glancing at his fingers, strong and calloused after almost eighty years of labor. Hats, once a crucial symbol of status and essential protection against the sun, transcend the waves of time. They help us make social statements and remind us of the past: cloche hats of the ’20s, fedoras of the ’50s, bucket hats of the ’80s. Most importantly, they serve as markers of change, each a product of thousands of years of craftsmanship evolving to present needs.
Zdârcă began his own journey with hat-making when he was 14, after he had moved from his hometown in rural Oltenia to live with his uncle in Bucharest. “I hadn’t seen a car before I came to Bucharest,” he remarked as he leaned back in his wooden chair while we talked. “Or a train.” As Romania grappled with the effects of World War II, boys who lived in the countryside often left to search for work opportunities, such as apprenticeships, in larger cities. Through a neighbor of his uncle’s, Zdârcă met Ion Popa, a hat maker at an atelier close to Gara de Nord, the Bucharest North railway station. Under Popa’s guidance, what started as a four-year-long, unpaid apprenticeship became a lifelong passion for hat-making: “I can’t bring myself to stay home. My hands can’t stop working. If I had to stay home, I would become ill; I would die.”
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the trades industry took a hit. “Hats [gave] a tone of elegance,” Zdârcă claimed, something which threatened the communist ideals pervading Romania at that time. In a society where uniformity was celebrated, the hat was a symbol of rebellion. In 1951, the National Union of Handicraft and Production Cooperatives of Romania, or the UCECOM, rose to power to fight for the rights of craftsmen. Despite their attempts, craftsmen still gave up their businesses. It was during this period that Zdârcă received his first hat atelier. He had previously served three years of service in the military, during which the UCECOM took over the late Popa’s atelier and nationalized it. At 25, Zdârcă obtained his own atelier, transforming him into one of the youngest hat makers in Bucharest.
The changing tides brought new opportunities, but also sacrifice. “[I] adapted to the fashion of those times,” he told me. Zdârcă set aside his notion of “elegance” and picked up wool to create practical winter hats, promoted by the sudden influx of Russian people and ideals. “I wanted my children to learn my craft,” he said, “but we barely had enough food.” Despite economic hardships and limits on creativity during communism, silver linings presented themselves: near Zdârcă’s atelier was the artistic center of Bucharest and the National Theatre of Bucharest. Through a customer base of actors and artists, Zdârcă’s craft and business survived. His hats appeared in director Sergiu Nicolaescu’s movies and on the heads of actors on stage. “Slowly, slowly, hats came back into fashion,” he said.
During the interview, I thought about whether hats were still in fashion. I glanced at the wooden hat blocks piled in the corner, wondering how many pieces of wool, felt and straw grazed against Zdârcă’s hands daily. Earlier, I had waited among pigeon coos in Pasajul Englez while Zdârcă measured strips of replacement ribbon against the black wool of a customer’s floppy hat. “How has your business been affected by the pandemic?” I asked, looking back at Zdârcă. He shook his head and folded his hands one over the other: “It’s not the pandemic that’s the issue… It’s poverty.” According to the World Bank, the Romanian economy contracted during the pandemic, elevating levels of poverty. But Zdârcă explains this isn’t strictly pandemic-related. The local factories that supplied his materials had already shut down, pushing him to source internationally from Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy. This importation feeds into the larger problems facing the Romanian economy: high levels of poverty, limited access to services, a lack of workforce due to diaspora, corruption among functioning businesses and widespread closures of local companies. For the hat-making business, the absence of young craftsmen is another issue. “Nobody learns craftwork anymore,” Zdârcă lamented as he stared down at the concrete floor of his studio. “They all run from the prospect, dreaming only of leaving the country.”
For Zdârcă, working with his hands is the finest pleasure on Earth. Although he officially retired at 62, he continues working in his hat shop and does not allow either history or norms deter him from his visions. “Anything you do in life, do it so that you like it first,” he recommended as advice for today’s youth. Throughout his lifetime, Zdârcă passed through four ateliers: three in cooperation with the UCECOM and the final on Pasajul Englez purchased with his own money. Despite anything that came up, the passion he held for his craft pushed him to adapt to shifting times.
“Look, I have some tomatoes.” Zdârcă stretched his right arm to open the white refrigerator in the corner of the room. He wrapped his fingers around the circumference of a fruit so plump that even his thumb and forefinger could not touch. “They’re healthy, watered and not chemically enhanced.” He looked up from the fruit of his labor, the corners of his lips upturned in a smile. As the interview came to a close, Zdârcă told me about the swing in his yard that he sits in every morning, admiring the rows of roses lining the perimeter, the four leafy trees in front of the gate, the green onion shoots sprouting from his garden soil. “I worked hard in life, but I also reaped the benefits,” he said. By keeping himself busy, finding pleasure in the overlooked things and sticking alongside his devotion to hat making, Zdârcă has uncovered the secret to a long, fulfilled life. Instead of allowing history to determine his future, he has continually fought against the currents and altered the trajectory of time. As the oldest hat maker in Bucharest, he makes history.
“When my clients shake my hand before they leave, that’s the best feeling,” Zdârcă told me during our last conversation. I paused the recording button on my phone and extended my hand.