Hat Trick

Summer is the time for coverings of the breezy sort: an umbrella on the beach, an awning on the window, and a hat skimming the brow. Preferably a feather-weight straw hat.

A certain whimsy is creeping back into the design of women's warm-weather hats. There's a wider variety of styles than in summers past, with braided straws, cloches, and cartwheels showing up on hat racks. The embellishments are more pronounced: floppy bows, grosgrain ribbons, fabric flowers, mystery-woman veils. Did someone say Churchill Downs or Ascot?

Ellen Goldstein, head of the accessories department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, says hats are becoming a wardrobe mainstay again. She says the winter's extreme temperatures and a rainy spring in many parts of the country, as well people's concerns about overexposure to sun, have all led to the resurgence.

National retail sales of women's hats reached $700 million in 1994, according to Jeff Prine, senior editor of the trade magazine Accessories in New York. He expects a slight increase in sales for 1995, although the figures aren't out yet. The real growth, Mr. Prine says, is in soft and casual hats, including the oh-so-familiar baseball cap.

Prine says that the market has held steady for fancy, high-end millinery among churchgoing women, residents of the Sun Belt, and members of ethnic groups who have traditionally worn hats. Also, with clothing designers returning to "ladylike ensemble dressing," hats complete the look.

Gina Tovar, Midwest regional fashion director for Nordstrom, says the two biggest seasons for hat-buying are, naturally, summer and winter, although sales in the department stores have remained steady all year long. This summer, she says, the headgear attracting the most attention is large-brimmed straw hats. "Women tend to buy [these] hats with a specific outfit or occasion in mind." Did someone say June wedding?

Hat manufacturing is centered in New York, but hundreds of entrepreneur-designers work out of their homes in other cities. One such designer is Natasha, in Boston, who started by remaking bridal headpieces and now handcrafts charming hats, many of them from Thai silk or samples of upholstery fabric.

Hats have inherent drama. In the irreverent 1991 book "Let There Be Clothes," Lynn Schnurnberger romps through several millenniums of fashion. She tells of actress Sarah Bernhardt, famous in the early part of this century, who loved to wear hats on stage but disliked other women wearing them to the theater. So when Bernhardt became wealthy enough to buy her own theater in 1907, she banned hats that obstructed the patrons' view of the stage (and of herself, of course).

The term milliner, according to Schnurnberger, was taken from Milan, the hometown of most hatmakers in Europe starting in the mid 1500s. They were called "Milaners."

One indefatigable hat wearer says she buys hats because they make her feel cheerful and keep her from being too critical about the rest of her body. She adds that people compliment her on her eyes more when she dons a hat.

Natasha, the Boston designer, says "It's all 'hat-itude.' If you have confidence, you can wear a hat, and it makes you even more confident."

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