Get your toppers, boaters, and spats -- London's `season' is upon us. Wimbledon is king of the sporting, social season

It's toppers and tails for Ascot. Boaters and bow ties for Henley. And anything goes for Wimbledon. That's the dress code for the London ``season'' which got off to a canter last week with the Ascot horse races, and moves into full gallop this week with Wimbledon, the world's premier tennis event.

``The season'' is a series of celebrated sporting, social events in London, rain or shine. Mostly, it's been rain, buckets of it, in what has been one of the wettest and coolest Junes on record.

The TV weatherman, who calls it ``rubbishy weather,'' can suggest only that tennis players and spectators should expect more of the same for the next few days.

Crowds, with overnight blankets, started lining up on Sunday, a full 24 hours before Wimbledon opened yesterday. They were there to get tickets or a job. Forty catering jobs were available -- serving, among other things, four tons of strawberries with thick English cream. For their troubles they got themselves and their blankets a thorough soaking. The sun did break through by midmorning but only after rolls of thunder, gray skies, and another heavy downpour.

Rain also put a damper on the four days of racing at Ascot last week forcing the Queen to take refuge under a cape and umbrella. But it didn't prevent the crowds turning out in the highest of fashion, looking more like extras in a set for ``My Fair Lady.''

Hats were the order of the day. Men came in top hats. Nothing else would do at Ascot. Women wore everything from the more conventional black and white broad-brimmed garden-party type of hat to the more exotic and bizarre piece of confectionery that bobbled and twirled in the breeze.

There's been a run on hats this year.

One woman who sought to deck herself out in a large white hat for one of the July Buckingham Palace garden parties, another of the high spots of ``the season,'' was told supplies were short.

``You wanted a white hat?'' the assistant asked. ``Nearly all the white hats have gone. Everyone wanted white or black this year. You see,'' she said with a flourish of her hand toward the shelves behind her, ``there's plenty of yellow, pink, and lavendar. You can never tell what they want.''

Women may buy, but men generally rent.

According to D. W. E. Thakker, manager of the rental department of Moss Bros., the large Covent Garden store that specializes in formal wear, 90 percent of the men who go to Ascot or a Buckingham Palace garden party rent. This year some 5,000 morning suits have been rented from the Covent Garden store alone and about another 1,500 from their other branches.

``Sometimes we get Arabs. They don't like to rent. They buy,'' Mr. Thakker says.

A three-piece morning suit with morning coat and tails, gray top hat, striped trousers, white shirt and gray tie costs 32, or a bit over $40 a day. A more elegant suit, a Richmond charcoal, costs 38 a day.

``Then it's one-and-a-half times the price for the second day, twice as much for the third day and two-and-a-half times for four days,'' says Thakker.

Who would rent for all four days of Ascot? ``Mostly Americans,'' says Thakker. He says he has hundreds of regular American customers who have been coming each year for a ``long, long time.''

The Henley boat races on the upper reaches of the Thames, well out of London, provide a more casual elegance. For men, it's striped blazers, white flannels, white shoes, and, of course, that which makes Henley distinctive, a boater or straw hat.

And the women? ``They wear dresses,'' this correspondent was primly told.

Of all the events in the social season, none is as relaxed or as popular as Wimbledon, particularly when the sun blazes down on the Center Court.

World famous tennis players all agree. In terms of prestige and atmosphere nothing quite compares with Wimbledon.

The pundits, though, feel the final result is likely to be predictable. Martina Navratilova is the firm favorite to take the women's title after winning it for three consecutive years. John McEnroe has been the men's champion for the last two years, and is obviously out to make it three in a row.

Inevitably at Wimbledon, there are upsets. Just like Ascot, some of the favorites fade early and don't always storm the finishing line. But we shan't know for another fortnight. -- 30 {et

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