Sue Arnold: Making statements in preposterous chapeaux

'One of the problems of being small is that unless I am careful most hats make me look like a mushroom'
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The Independent Online

Get ahead, get a hat. I like that, I also think it's true. People who wear hats are positive, confident, uninhibited, direct. Precisely the opposite to those who wear headscarves. I'm impressed by people who wear hats, especially women. My idea of female perfection is Ingrid Bergman in the final scene of Casablanca. She's making the ultimate sacrifice, she's giving up the man she loves, she's also wearing a hat and, quite frankly, without it both the sacrifice and the man she's giving up wouldn't be half as tragic.

It helps that Humphrey Bogart is also be-hatted in a number not unlike Miss Bergman's – dark, soft, no-brimmed. The perfect accompaniment to moist eye, quivering lip and stoic profile.

A hat isn't an accessory, it's a statement. It says – well, that depends on the hat. For instance, the hat that I shall be wearing at 4.30 this afternoon will say something along the lines of "unaccustomed as I am to being the mother of the bride, I am taking my new role very seriously, particularly the prospect of becoming someone's mother-in-law which secretly fills me with such deep depression, remembering all those Les Dawson jokes, that if I weren't wearing this fantastic concoction of pale pink straw, tulle and ribbon I would probably go out and top myself." It's a garrulous hat.

One of the problems of being small is that unless I am very careful most hats make me look like a mushroom. I looked more like a toadstool in the first hat I wore to Ascot – that sounds as if I go to Ascot ever year. I don't. I've only ever been once and that was by mistake. I was writing about David Shilling, the hat-designer, whose career took off when his larger-than-life mother went to Royal Ascot one year wearing one of his creations, a giant cup-and-saucer. It was ridiculous but it made the front page of every newspaper and thereafter, every June, Mrs Shilling would descend on Berkshire in a series of preposterous chapeaux that required not just courage but pretty powerful muscles to carry them off. One year I remember it was a fluffy bunny eating a four-foot high carrot. Some rabbit, some neck.

Anyway, there I was in David Shilling's London salon questioning him narrowly about good taste and motherly love when in walks this trés chic French woman looking for an Ascot hat. We get talking. She asks if I'm doing anything next Tuesday, Ladies' Day. As a matter of fact I'm not, I say. In that case, enquires Madame Champetier de Ribes, would I consider accompanying her party to the races because one of their number has dropped out at the last minute.

There is a small snag. I would have to pretend to be Princess something-or-other because she will not have time to change the tickets. David Shilling graciously kits me out in a toadstool hat and off I go. If only I could tell you that the glorious day I had, drinking champagne in a box with various Dukes of this and Counts of that, was the highlight of my humdrum life.

Alas it wasn't. They were charming, they were courteous, but my golly they were dull. They didn't even watch the races. They just paraded up and down in their finery looking for people they knew.

My pink hat doesn't make me look like a mushroom because it was designed by Gabriela Ligenza, a friend who has my best interests at heart. Vogue magazine once featured her best-ever hat on its cover. It looked as if you were walking through a cloud full of butterflies, the butterflies attached by invisible wires. It only worked if you were tall. On me, it would have looked like wasps clustered round a marmalade jar.

Hats are expensive but they're worth it. "Why," asked my friend's aunt of the hat assistant at Harvey Nichols, "does this hat with 42 pink roses on the brim cost £250, whereas this one with a single white rose costs £700?"

The assistant sniffed. "Madam is paying for the restraint," she said.

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