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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Retro style: The always fashionable Sheila Brownlee knows the art of the hat.

Put a Lid on It

A few heady thoughts on women's hats

By Kelly Boler

DESPITE anything that fashion maven Emily Post might have said on the subject, by the time most baby boomers were out of the sandbox, the day of the mandatory hat was all but over. Today, headlines regularly ballyhoo the return of the hat, but it never really seems to happen. Pretty amazing, considering that for most of this century and several preceding it, it was unthinkable to leave the house bareheaded.

Then came the late '50s and early '60s, and hairspray and the hairdo made the hat an endangered species.

Still, hats never quite disappeared. They remain the fashion accessory that attracts and scares women the most. Even those who are otherwise eager to walk out on outrageous sartorial limbs are unwilling to dare a hat. I wear hats often, and almost every time I go out I get comments.

"You look so good in hats. I wish I could wear hats."

"Hats don't look good on me."

"I can't wear hats."

Saying you don't look good in hats is like saying you don't look good in shoes. Every woman looks good in some hat; you just have to find it and wear it. And when you do, men will desire and women will envy, and you'll wonder why the heck you never did it before.

First, though, you may need to conquer Hat Anxiety. This is the impulse that overwhelms a woman when she's about to go out in a hat. Having placed her chapeau carefully on her head, she starts out for a party or a wedding--often the only events at which a woman will still try to wear a hat. As she approaches her destination, she becomes increasingly uneasy. She is sure that people are looking at her. In this vulnerable moment, she panics and suffers an attack of Hat Anxiety and leaves her hat in the car.

For those who can't afford therapy (it's just good money you should be spending on hats, anyway), here are some tips on overcoming this fear of making a commitment to headgear.

Tip 1: Visit a hat maker

As fashion goes, no one is ever going to confuse this area with New York (the hat capital of the United States), but many areas do have several terrific local milliners creating their own hats. By going directly to their studios, you spend no more money than you would spend in one of the big hat stores. More important, you get a perfect fit, personal attention, advice, and feedback from someone infinitely more knowledgeable and concerned than a salesclerk. You get luxury.

Tip 2: Buy a well-made hat

Most clothes-conscious women know when a skirt or pair of shoes is poorly made--buttons are loose, seams are crooked, or something doesn't lie flat. Use the same common sense, rather than price, as a guide to quality in headgear. (You can find well-crafted $30 pieces, and $200 hats that show all the tacky evidence of skimping.) Trims should be sewn on, not glued. For hats of sewn fabric, materials should be natural, and seams should line up. Straw hats should be pliant, not hard and unforgiving. Wools should be velour felt or fur felt and should get their style from being shaped on a block, not from artificial stiffener. If a hat is stiff, it is probably full of "sizing," which does not feel good, look good, or last.

Tip 3: Put it on as if you mean it

Women often use a mystifying approach when trying on a hat: they hold it at arm's length, contemplate it, and then, at last, with uncertainty, lay it on the back of the head like a yarmulke. Inevitably the hat comes off with "See? I told you, hats don't look good on me." Well, a hat wouldn't look good on Rita Hayworth worn that way. Be confident. Do not be afraid to bring a hat down around your ears. Dip it over one eye or tilt it slightly to one side. Also, consider your hair. You might need to push it back or bring it forward. If you wear bangs, try tucking them under the hat, so there are fewer forehead issues in your overall look.

Tip 4: Make sure it fits right

A hat should feel snug but not tight. Although there are tricks to adjusting sizes slightly, I can almost guarantee that if you buy a hat that doesn't fit, you will rarely wear it.

Tip 5: Think old hat

New, well-made hats can be very affordable, and they are great fashion investments. But what if they are still out of your price range? For $20, you can get a new, horrible, worthlesss hat, or you can get a vintage hat worth 10 times its price, lovingly made in gorgeous materials. The wool or straw in an old hat is often superior, and there is just no comparing the workmanship. In the glory years of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, even an over-the-counter chapeau had quality and style. I found a cocoa-brown velour wool Borsalino beret at a flea market for $2. I've also had good luck in the $4 range, but it is more realistic to expect to find a good vintage piece in the $15-to-$35 range. It might be a tiny "doll's" hat covered with cabbage roses that just barely hangs on over one eye, or a straw "pilgrim" with a rhinestone buckle and a flowing veil in the back. A brown wool fez covered with black mesh; a saucy porkpie with an ostrich plume. Of course, you sometimes give up certain things for economy. Your selection is limited to what's at hand, and there is no guarantee that the frothy concoction in the antique-store window is your size. Or sometimes they are smushed or not quite clean--these things happen after 50 years or so. This is more likely to be a problem if you scrounge at flea markets and thrift stores, and can be avoided by going to a vintage-clothing store that takes care of its merchandise. If you don't mind scavenging (and it's a career for some of us), you can always try to repair your diamond in the rough. Trial and error and common sense are rules of thumb here. If something is in questionable shape, the price should reflect that. If you find a squashed bargain, take it home and press it with a very steamy iron or teakettle, and reshape it by hand. Clean with a stiff clothes brush or spot-clean with a damp cloth. Cover a spot or hole with a brooch or flower. Be fearless, and use your imagination. This is why the Almighty gave us safety pins.

Tip 6: Ease into it

Trick yourself into wearing hats, like so:

* Winter is a good time to start, because you have the perfect reason for wearing a hat. This is a good chance to try something more daring, with gorgeous ribbons or flowers, and still not feel outrageous.

* Wear the most simple, subtle hat you can find--a beret, perhaps. "A beret really looks good on almost everyone," says hat expert Jean O'Hara. The important part is to keep it on as part of your ensemble when you get to where you are going.

* Wear a hat with something very, very simple, like a black dress or a gray suit. An understated look with a hat will help you avoid the sensation that you're wearing a costume and making an entrance.

* Start while you are on vacation, or somewhere else where people don't know you don't wear hats all the time.

* Try wearing men's hats. For some ironic reason, fedoras, boaters, and derbies look great with everything from baggy pants to pencil skirts. Try pinning a brooch or some cloth flowers on the band; make it look more "you." Get people used to seeing you in hats, and, more important, get yourself used to people seeing you in hats.

Tip 7: Jump

Just do it. Find a hat that makes you happy and stop thinking about it. Once you overcome Hat Anxiety, you'll never go back to being bareheaded again. Your friends will take courage and they'll start to wear hats. Pretty soon there will be a revolution of hat wearing, designing, and making, and all those headlines about the return of the hat will at last come true.

This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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