This season, fashion designers are pushing a mature, polished look that includes demure suits, elbow-length gloves and a decorative accessory that has been out of favour since the 1950s: hats.
Wide-brimmed hats and berets were prominent features in the Fall 2007 and Spring 2008 New York runway shows of influential designers such as Marc Jacobs and Phillip Lim. On a Paris runway, Alexander McQueen sent models out wearing elaborate cocktail hats featuring swarms of butterflies or metallic towering sculptures.
Lord & Taylor’s Fall catalogue calls hats a top trend, along with swing jackets and wide-leg pants. Bloomingdale’s just hosted a “Hat Week”—its first such event in more than 10 years—with appearances from hat designers.
The resurgence reflects a variety of influences, from the runway to popular culture to an increased emphasis on sun protection. This more formal style of dressing also signals a large cyclical shift in fashion, which happens every few years and aims to get consumers to buy a whole new look rather than a few pieces.
But some hatters are restraining their enthusiasm, in part because designers often create exaggerated runway looks for the sole purpose of generating excitement about their brand. Luxury retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus didn’t highlight hats among the top trends they picked for Fall, instead choosing to focus on more reliable items such as boots, bags and jackets.
“Hats are very specific,” says Ken Downing, fashion director at Neiman Marcus. Many women, he says, “will opt out of the hat and define their Fall wardrobe with a great shoe and bag.”
Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale’s fashion director, says it is too early to tell if hats will have staying power at a time when most women wear them for function, not fashion. A long-term trend towards increasingly casual dressing rendered elaborate hats an anachronism, suitable for special occasions such as the Kentucky Derby, says Ellen Goldstein, chairman of the accessories department at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).
In response to declining demand, many retailers shrank or closed their hat departments to make way for higher-margin accessories such as handbags and belts, which require less space to display. FIT used to have hundreds of students taking millinery classes. Now, there are fewer than 50.
“A woman has to have confidence to wear a hat these days because often she will be the only person in the room wearing one,” says Steven Scott Kokin, a milliner based in New York. Kokin says his 23-year-old label, Kokin, has survived a downward fashion cycle by increasing sales in Europe, where more women wear hats. Still, he was optimistic enough about the return to a more dressed-up look to open a boutique on New York’s Upper East Side last winter.
US hat sales rose about 1% last year to about $980 million (approx. Rs3,891 crore), according to Accessories magazine, which tracks sales for the $30 billion accessories industry. But the increase was predominantly driven by casual hats aimed at young consumers, rather than some of the more romantic looks that appeared on the runways.
Hat trends have come and gone throughout the ages. In the 1920s, the cloche hat, a close-fitting, bell-shaped hat, was in vogue, replaced by the fedora in the 1940s, a style fuelled in part by the film Casablanca. By the 1950s, Christian Dior declared that without hats, “we would have no civilization”. Dior, who invented the New Look in 1947, paired his signature cinched ensembles with hats of varying shapes and sizes. When John F. Kennedy removed his hat for his presidential inauguration speech in 1961, he was blamed for killing the hat business.
In the 1990s, there was a hip-hop driven surge in baseball caps but, for the most part, American women have gone hatless since the late 1950s. Ceron, a Houston hairstylist and salon owner who goes by only one name, says he has noticed some of his socialite clients wearing what he calls “hippie chic inspired” headwear lately, such as the Prada turban and Pucci scarves.
Designers acknowledge that the styles most likely to win over consumers are soft, unstructured hats that can be stuffed in a handbag. Chris Benz, whose sheared mink caps retail for $795 on shopbop.com, says “it’s important to make it as easy as possible” for consumers, many of whom haven’t bought a fashionable hat in many years.
Lissette Fernandez, a 37-year-old marketing executive in San Francisco, bought two $80 suede newsboy caps at Nordstrom after seeing The Devil Wears Prada. Fernandez says she was trying to replicate one of actor Anne Hathaway’s menswear-inspired looks from the film.
Fernandez was also looking for an inexpensive way to spice up her Fall wardrobe after blowing her budget on a $2,500 Prada handbag. “I told myself I need to wait another year until I buy another bag,” she says.
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