For two days in June, Baltimore’s quaint neighbourhood of Hampden is invaded by “Hons”, who are armed with beehives, feather boas and cat-eye glasses bedazzled with rhinestones. To non-Baltimorean eyes, this parade of tens of thousands of women and men decked out in their finest pastel swing skirts, cheap wigs and garish makeup is perplexing, but locals know the figure of the Hon well.

HonFest is a street festival that honours the historic working-class women of Baltimore. At its helm is a little-known subculture called “Hons” – easily identifiable by their over-the-top dresses, hair and jewellery. Today, Hons’ faces are emblazoned on T-shirts and coffee mugs throughout Baltimore, and they have become one of the city’s most prominent mascots. But this subculture’s roots can be traced to humble beginnings.

From the early to mid-20th Century, Baltimore was one of the nation’s largest and most important industrial hubs. With enormous factories like The Sparrows Point Steel Mill and an expansive harbour for imports and exports, blue-collar, mostly white, families from across Europe flocked to Baltimore for work. For decades, husbands were able to support their families with the income they garnered from these jobs, but that all changed during World War Two and the Korean War when a significant portion of men were drafted or enlisted, thus pushing women into the workforce.

“The women we honour were stuck at home with their kids when their husbands were off fighting, so they got jobs like waitressing, making beds in hotels and taking in laundry to pay the mortgage and feed the kids,” explained Bonnie Hockstein, organiser of HonFest’s enormously popular beauty pageant and queen bee of the subculture’s volunteer programme, Hon Hive. “When their husbands came back from war, they said, ‘Well little darling, you don’t have to work anymore’. But [the women] didn’t want to quit their job because they had money, and the money gave them a little power and they could buy things.”

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It turned out that these working-class women enjoyed having an independent source of income and continued working in spite of their husbands’ protests, exhibiting their happiness through their warm demeanour, calling clientele“hon” (short for “honey”) rather than “sir” or “ma'am”. The working-class women used this colloquialism so much that people started referring to them as “Hons”.

Although women all over the United States had a similar experience during the post-war period – and even dressed in similar fashion to Baltimore’s Hons – what made these working-class women stand out in comparison to others across the nation is the city’s celebration of them.

“The Hon is such a potent image because it reflects a previously established Baltimore identity: a quirky, kitschy and down-to-earth vibe that stands in contrast to the dourer and haughtier attitude of nearby Washington DC,” explained local historian Dr David Puglia.

No other city celebrates the Hon the way Baltimore does

In his book Tradition, Urban Identity, and the Baltimore “Hon”, Puglia details how Baltimore has always struggled with its cultural identity. Located in the liminal zone known as the Mid-Atlantic States, it’s not far north enough to be Northern, not far south enough to be Southern and too far east to be Rustbelt. He theorises that Baltimore’s celebration of the “Hon” is part of its quest to define itself, a nostalgic glorification of its prominent blue-collar history.

“No other city celebrates the Hon the way Baltimore does,” he said.

Along with costume jewellery and colourful outfits, these mid-century working women loved to spend their cash at the salon. According to Hockstein, Hons lived by the saying “the higher the hair the closer to heaven”, piling their tresses atop their heads in large bouffants and beehives. These hairstyles were more than just fashion statements; they were ways to stand out in jobs where women were expected to blend into the background.

“Working Baltimoriennes flaunted their hard-earned cash through their flamboyant wardrobes and hairstyles,” said Hockstein, who when we met was wearing cherry earrings, pink-framed glasses and a colourful headband, a more subdued version of her flamboyant Hon alter-ego Bonnie Shiksakowski. (“Shiksa”, Jewish slang for a gentile girl since she married a Jewish man, and “kowski'' a nod to her Polish heritage.) Sitting in her living room, surrounded by beehive wigs, oversized sunglasses and a mountain of feather boas, Hockstein explained that the modern-day Hons of Honfest intensify the original Hon look with brighter colours, bigger hair and more garish jewellery, but it’s all based on the historical reality.

The reason Hockstein is such an authority on this subject is that her mother – who at 92 still goes by Poopsie, the nickname she picked up while working as a waitress for nearly half a century – was an original Baltimore Hon.

Poopsie is a vivacious woman with a razor-sharp wit and a certain toughness that likely comes from her proud working-class heritage. (She jokingly told me when we met that she would never move in with Hockstein because “all she eats is salads”.) The daughter of Polish immigrants, Poopsie and her four siblings were raised by a single mother who made ends meet by working in a packing house after her husband died.

Poopsie married another first-generation Polish-American, a tugboat operator who loved to dance Polka. But though they enjoyed some good times together, entering and winning several dance competitions in the city, happiness was elusive and they separated after 25 years of marriage, leaving Poopsie to raise their three children on her own. She rose to the challenge fearlessly, working long hours at Haussner’s, one of Baltimore’s oldest and most famous restaurants located on Eastern Avenue until it was demolished in 1999.

What struck me most about my conversation with Poopsie, other than her resilience, was how often she reiterated the phrase, “Things were different in them days”. It’s a sentiment that Hockstein echoed when she described the lost sense of community in Baltimore. “That’s what it used to be like, everyone stayed in Baltimore,” Hockstein told me. “Now people come and go, and no-one is invested in the city.”

When Hockstein was a child, Baltimore was still a booming blue-collar city. Its population peaked in the 1950s with just fewer than one million residents but began to steadily decline as the city de-industrialised and manufacturing left the US during the post-war period. By 2000, the city had lost one third of its population, and today the population stands at just more than 600,000. The city also underwent an urban renaissance in the 1970s, when the construction of the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Harborplace festival market transformed the city into a regional tourist destination.

That’s what it used to be like, everyone stayed in Baltimore

“That structural shift, which caused the decline of particular neighbourhoods and ways of life, also drew attention to the culture that was fading away,” Puglia said.

The current manifestation of the Hon, and the community outreach that Hockstein does with her Hon Hive, is then at once a nostalgic endeavour and a rallying cry to bring back Baltimore’s lost sense of community.

The modern-day figure of the Hon was born in 1992 when Denise Whiting, a business woman born and raised in Baltimore, opened Cafe Hon in Hampden – a pastel-and-neon homage to the greasy spoon cafes where working-class women in the post-war period found jobs. The exterior features a giant pink flamingo statue stuck to its facade, while the menu offers down-home Maryland staples, like cream of crab soup, crab mac ‘n’ cheese, and chicken wings covered in Old Bay spice (Maryland’s much-loved seasoning salt).

In 1994, Whiting started hosting mock beauty pageants where women would adorn beehives or curlers to compete for the title of “Best Hon”. By 2003, “HonFest” had become an official street festival that now draws more than 60,000 attendees each year.

Over the years, HonFest has received criticism from people who view it as a misappropriation of working-class aesthetics by middle-class interlopers. “It’s condescending now,” cinema auteur John Waters told USA Today in 2008. “The people that celebrate it are not from it. I feel that in some weird way they’re looking slightly down on it.”

Waters, a native Baltimorean who very much identifies with the subculture, created his own version of the Hon in his films like Female Trouble (1974) and Pink Flamingos (1972). His muse and childhood friend, the drag queen Divine, starred in these films as an exaggerated version of the Baltimorienne, and, unlike the well-kempt participants of HonFest, Waters’ Hons are surly, glamorously cheap and often grotesque. His portrayal of the Hon glorifies her as the pinnacle of working-class glamour and paints her as the ultimate woman. 

If you know where to look, you can still find Waters’ version of Hon-era Baltimore. At Club Charles, the Christmas tinsel never comes down and the supersaturated paint on the walls makes it look like a set piece from one of the auteur’s cult films. The club was opened by former waitress, bartender and Hon, Esther West, in 1951 as the Wigwam, a nod to West’s Native American heritage. “She had one of the wildest, foulest mouths,” Waters said to the Baltimore Sun upon her death in 2003. “She was the kind of Baltimore character that is getting rarer and rarer. She was an inspiration to me."

Just a stone's throw from the site of HonFest, on W 36th, are real greasy spoons like the Lunch Box, whose charming interior hasn’t changed much since the ‘80s, with prices to match (nothing on the menu is more than $10). Unlike the trendy restaurants that surround it, the Lunch Box is the type of place where Hons would have worked – and some still do. Though the hairstyles have changed, the warm quintessentially “Hon” welcome and comfort food have not. 

Further up the street is Zissimos Bar, which has remained a local hub since 1930 and is one of the last working-class bastions in the city (and one of Waters’ favourite spots in Baltimore). Zissimos has somehow resisted the tidal wave of gentrification with an unassuming interior that features a shotgun bar, wood panelling and lottery machines, and an upstairs for comedy performances and concerts. Original Hons would come here to unwind after a long day's work and some still come by for a drink at the bar.

After spending the day with Hockstein and Poopsie, I realised that although Baltimore is a very different city from its post-industrial heyday, the original spirit of the city isn’t so hard to find. I also realised that modern-day Hons like Hockstein have a deep understanding, respect and love for Baltimore and its rich blue-collar history. So, if you’re ever in Baltimore for HonFest, don’t be afraid to spark up a conversation with a Hon. Chances are you’ll learn a lot.

Our Unique World is a BBC Travel series that celebrates what makes us different and distinctive by exploring offbeat subcultures and obscure communities around the globe.