Three Hails For Impractical Hats!

''Hats,'' contemporary American (but British-born) hat-designer Patricia Underwood has been quoted as observing, ''are not making a comeback.'' The word for such a determined lack of promotionalism, presumably, is ''unhype.'' Consistently, Underwood has herself been described as making ''sensible, practical hats.''

Goodness -- things haven't half come to a pretty pass in the millinery world! Contrary to almost all historical precedent, it seems we have arrived at a period when hats have finally become sensible and practical.

Surely this is not what the evolutionary processes of the cosmos had in mind at all. Hats were meant to be over-the-top. By nature. Weren't they?

Yet, certainly, it does seem lamentably true that even a street-style hat can nowadays do little more than squash down over the occasional young woman's brows -- a drooped after-image of what may have once been a hat in some previous existence -- a sort of casual pie crust in black velvet or old maroon wool that someone knitted while watching a soap opera.

Underwood (whose hats, seriously, are admirably crafted and not as merely sensible as they might at first seem) even suggested once that a hat is something you can make in the kitchen. Well, something she can make in the kitchen.

But where have all the flowers gone? And the baskets of fruit piled high? And the ribbons, bows, lace, ostrich plumes, maribou feathers, lappets, and kissing strings?

And where are the hats that looked as if the spheres and planets had descended and were in orbit around a young lady's head? Why are there no longer hats so high and elaborate that the tallest bloke sitting behind you in a theater can't possibly glimpse the stage?

Or hats with vast brims like those that caused a diarist called Croker in the early 19th century to complain that at dinner the confections on the heads of his two companions actually prevented him from seeing his own plate? Why is it that even among the fashion pages so elegantly presented in a recent Vogue magazine I could only find one advertisement for a hatmaker?

What dull times we live in.

A little book tracing some of the past glories of ''Women's Hats'' (as the book is called) has found its way into the English-speaking world from Italy, courtesy of Chronicle Books. There is scarcely a hat in it that cannot be described as elegant or whimsical, and usually both.

Ah, those were the days of real style, of the where-did-you-get-that-hat belief in millinery as an art form; when what mattered was the hat and not the head. The days of hat cuisine. The sole purpose of each of the concoctions displayed in this book was apparently to elicit (to quote Scarlett O'Hara) such involuntary exclamations as ''Oh, the darling thing!''

Well, frankly, my dear.

Who cares anymore? It seems that (with one or two honorably dotty and theatrical 1990s exceptions) such furbelowing flummery has simply -- gone with the wind.

But then wasn't that really what all the best women's hats in their heyday were designed to do?

*In part 2 of this 3-part series, the topic will be men's hats.

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