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mad for hats

Big hats, little hats, silly hats - Meredyth Etherington-Smith loves them all - and not just in Ascot Week.
Until the appearance on the fashion scene of such stars of the moulded straw, the feather, and the veil, as Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy, hats were regarded as non-starters. They were boring, irrelevant and ageing, reminding one of dull speech days and mothers in battered-but-not-bowed navy straws with tired silk roses hiding in the brim. It took the savvy French to discover the joys of post-modern milliners such as Treacy, Jones and their own Philippe Modell. And we in England are only just beginning to follow suit.

The English have a love-hate relationship with hats; we breed the best milliners in the world, educate them at expensive art colleges and admire their work - then we go out in a panic the week before Ascot or a summer wedding and buy our one (mostly unsuitable because too elaborate) hat of the year, which is worn once, plonked uncertainly on top of a protesting hairdo, put away to gather dust in a cupboard, and eventually sold at a bring-and- buy charity hat sale.

I belong to quite another school of thought about hats - that they should be a way of life, not a desperate last-minute obeisance to the gods of socially-correct "occasion" dressing. I have been wearing hats day in, day out, since my twenties. Big hats, silly hats, furry hats, hats made out of feathers, wonderful hats from the past, one Edwardian hat so big Air France gave it an airline seat for itself, and futuristic hats made out of aluminium or millions of shocking pink, nylon tulle frills. I wear hats for a variety of reasons, the main one being that a really good hat is the best way I know to scene- steal, especially on a bad-hair day.

I am particularly fond of what used to be known as the "cocktail" hat. This is the absurdly frivolous hat you cram on at the end of a hard day in the office and sally forth to a cocktail party looking as if you have spent the afternoon getting ready rather than staring at a computer screen. The best cocktail hat I owned was a black velvet hat in the shape of a high-heeled shoe up ended on my head. Out of the heel of this surrealist shoe stuck a curving feather which was three feet long - the hat was a museum piece, having been designed by Elsa Schiaparelli for Madame Salvador Dali in the Thirties and it caused major upheavals whenever I wore it. Sadly, it came to a bad end when a drunk in a cocktail bar in New York sneaked up behind me and cut off the feather. I was in despair for weeks.

Recently, Jo Gordon, a brilliant young milliner beginning to make a name for herself with her witty feather hats in neon colours, produced a shocking pink cloche for me, composed of thousands of rows of tightly crimped tulle net frills. Worn with a dull little black dress I had been toiling in all day, this frivolous confection caused a sensation this winter at a very smart party indeed. If you think about it, the cocktail hat is the perfect party accessory. If you are in a crowd, all that can be seen is your face and, possibly, your shoulders, so a hat will attract attention from across a very crowded room.

Believe it or not, really silly hats can have their uses at work, too. One of the silliest and most useful hats I own is a wonderful explosion of ostrich feathers made for me by Philip Treacy. He divided the feathers into a forest of single fronds and dyed them to match the colour of my hair, giving the effect, when worn, that I had suffered from a major electric shock. Knowing that a

meeting I was going to would be difficult, not to say stormy, I decided to wear this hat - at 8.15am. On entering the meeting, the six men sitting crossly round the table caught each others eyes and burst into uncontrollable laughter. Bad humours were forgotten and the meeting became very jolly indeed. When challenged later that morning by my boss why I had worn the hat, I replied, simply that I was having a bad-hair day. "You might consider having a few more of them," he replied, trying desperately not to laugh.

The most difficult hats to find, however, are not those designed for special occasions but the everyday hat - the casual hat that doesn't look out of place in the office but hides horrible hair or protects it from getting wet. Very high on my list of such hats is a large, false fur hat that is a more effective protector of hair in the rain than any umbrella. Or take that emblem of the young - the Kangol beret. Jaunty, breezy, in fun colours, it has become a major fashion re-discovery and the nimble hands at Kangol cannot keep up with the demand from, amongst other devotees, Madonna, who jogs in hers. And what could be more attractive than that steal from the man's sporting wardrobe: the flat tweed cap in grouse moor colours of faded sage, deep burgundy and mud brown? As an everyday winter accessory worn with a cashmere or lambswool scarf, this is the perfect non-event hat for all weathers.

It is what might be called the cool factor of such hats, together with the stunning designs of our brilliant young milliners, that, to my mind, means that the hat is not dead nor buried but undergoing a welcome renaissance amongst the young who realise that a great hat implies that you have attitude, savoir-faire, self confidence and the capacity for making fun of oneself or of a stuffy occasion. Hats are indeed valuable social glue in this increasingly image-conscious world, as well as being just as much a fashion statement as the right designer bag.