- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A must-have for garden-party and steeplechase season, hats are staying put as fashion’s favorite - not to mention utilitarian - accessory despite a tight economy and an increasingly informal culture.

“Hats are expensive,” concedes milliner Anthony Gaskins, who runs the Hattery in Georgetown Park mall. “This year I have noticed that not as many people want to spend $500 on a hat, but they will spend two or three hundred.”

Mr. Gaskins says he has been besieged with business this spring as the Gatsby set heads to the Kentucky Derby and the Virginia Gold Cup, two of the nation’s most famous horse races, where there often is more scuttlebutt about hats than horses.

Says Anna Fuhrman, owner of the Proper Topper in Georgetown and on Connecticut Avenue, “I ordered cautiously this year, thinking that people would not be buying. But we have had a great week and have seen a surge. We should be about even with last year, if not a little ahead.”

Ms. Fuhrman says she credits the sudden burst of warm weather with infusing buyers with “optimism, and that is affecting their spending patterns.”

She says women in particular are more likely to spend their scarce dollars on their heads. “They love wearing hats, but feel self-conscious about wearing them every day, so when they go to an event where wearing a hat is mandatory, they are very excited,” she says, referring to not only the horse races, but British weddings and parties such as the upcoming Trust for the National Mall luncheon and the Woodrow Wilson Garden Party.

At many of these functions, it is not uncommon for best-hat competitions to be taken as seriously as the event’s cause.

Vicky Moon, a denizen of the Virginia horsey set and the author of the new book “Equestrian Style,” says, “Of course, everyone is cutting back wherever they can. That said, I am a total hat snob even though I do not wear them as often as I’d like.

“One must have attitude to wear a hat and carry it off well. There’s nothing worse than a cheap hat. I know one woman out here [in Virginia] who likes to wear hats. She always wears fairly large hats and has a nice wardrobe, but she wears cheap hats. Like $30 or $50 hats, and it looks terrible,” she says. “It’s better to not wear a hat. The hat needs to match the outfit not just in color, but also in style. It does not need to scream, ‘Look at me.’ ”

Even as casual attitudes toward dress have become acceptable even at formal events, milliners say hats have retained their status as cultural traditions.

“There is a significant etiquette precedent with hats and the races, and it continues to this day. Like so many things associated with horses and equestrian style, it has British antecedents. It’s considered improper to go to the box seats without a hat during Royal Ascot, when members of the royal family and others with titles are in attendance,” Ms. Moon explains.

Mr. Gaskins says for men, a classic straw fedora never goes out of style and easily can be purchased for about $60.

Among younger women, Mr. Gaskins has noticed an interest in the fascinator, which is more of a headpiece than a hat. Made popular by “Sex and the City’s” Sarah Jessica Parker, the “fascinator is a throwback in time [to] when women had to wear hats but wanted something smaller for cocktail parties.”

Fascinators retail for about $65, Mr. Gaskins says.

Of course, all are in agreement that when hat shopping, you should think about the basic purpose of hats - avoiding the sun - which is why hats reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara are best for this time of year.

Ms. Fuhrman and Ms. Moon advise buying a basic wide-brim straw hat and embellishing it with a tasteful flower, pin or ribbon. Ann Taylor Loft is selling this variety for less than $30.

“It’s plain practicality,” Ms. Moon says.

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