THE MAN in the hat bowed his head conspiratorially. 'I bought it from Turnbull & Asser years ago. I believe it's one of those rare ones.' Then he lowered his voice, as if he were about to utter an unpardonable oath. 'You see, between you and me, it's got beaver in it.'

A launch party in London this week for a book on hats brought together hat wearers of all sorts. Who still wears them? More people than you might think. Traditional millinery is still in long-term decline, but other forms of headwear are on the increase: the baseball cap, the beret, the Rastafarian hat, the Baker Boy cap, and those floppy, squashy, 'chimney pot' hats that are everywhere on the streets in winter.

The event was a celebration rather than a wake. A well-chosen hat imparts to the wearer a certain elan. As our pictures show, it also highlights the personality within. Hat wearers, it might be said, are standard bearers for individualism in an age of conformist inclinations.

The cream of London milliners was on parade, including Philip Treacy, Nicholas Oakwell, Philip Somerville, and David Shilling. Stephen Jones was one of the few milliners who wore a hat. The others were content to watch their creations float round the party on the heads of friends.

Jones, who made his name in the early Eighties with a series of surreal creations for pop stars and club personalities, wore a see-through baseball cap which he had whipped up using theatrical lighting lenses. 'Took me half an hour,' he said. 'You can spend weeks agonising over something, but the hideous truth is that it's often the hat that you put together in five minutes that works best.'

Spare a thought for the milliner, once a familiar feature of every high street. In the Twenties, even the least fashion-conscious of women would buy four new hats a season. Fast forward a few generations, and only weddings and royal receptions can lure most women into the structured hats that we associate with the traditional milliner.

Colin McDowell, author of Hats: Status, Style and Glamour, says the Sixties marked the real beginning of the end for the milliners. 'What young women found really exciting then was hair. Professional hairdressers took over almost entirely from milliners as the creators of head-dress.'

The decline in demand for the milliner's products has meant that only the very best can survive. Britain has some of the world's most prolific and skilled hatmakers, ranging from century-old Herbert Johnson of New Bond Street to Stephen Jones and, most recently, Philip Treacy, who has shot into the international spotlight within three years of leaving the Royal College of Art.

Milliners such as Jones and Treacy still run relatively small businesses, but they have an enormous influence on fashion and style, because fashion designers love them. They love the fact that Treacy expresses himself with a creative freedom unique in one so young, whether designing feathery fantasies for Jasper Conran or Javanese temples for Rifat Ozbek's Milan show.

Whether he can make anything he wants is another matter. Between you and me, hats in beaver might be considered beyond the pale.

'Hats: Status, Style and Glamour' by Colin McDowell is published by Thames and Hudson, price pounds 24.95.

(Photograph omitted)