If there is one single item that separates this fashion season from those of former years, it's the hat. The mad hat. The absolutely preposterous, don't-ask-where-you-would-wear-it hat. The hat becomes a giant primeval forest at Chanel, where great nests of bramble, bushes, and bracken top everything from conventional Chanel jackets to Victorian-corseted gowns. At Dior, a draped hat continues around the neck to form a scarf.

The hair as hat is also news at Chanel, where papier mache wigs in bright colors make headlines, and at Versace, where long blonde manes end in dark lion markings. In many ways, the new hats represent the couture itself. Are they relics of fashion's glorious past, or vital, viable forces for tomorrow?

They're obviously important to the people at Dior, who positioned a beautiful young woman in a stunning black velvet picture hat in the front row. As she arrived, the room was abuzz with who-is-she whispers. As she left, a house spokeswoman said she was a fake customer they'd hired to "add to the color." She surely did. The hat was so wide Ivana Trump, who was seated next to her, had to lean to the left to see anything.

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