Hats off

Sunday, January 11, 2004

FASHION IS USUALLY all about what's new, but sometimes it's about what keeps you warm.

Sock caps, knit caps and even newsboys are making the rounds again as the hot fashion item for the winter season.

Whether they don the heads of schoolchildren playing outdoors in the cool weather or college students making fashion statements, knit hats are all the rage in Southeast Missouri.

Dustin Ingram of Cape Girardeau wasn't trying to look fashionable when he chose his winter cap -- a bright orange sock cap. "I'm not worried too much about fashion. I'm just trying to keep warm."

During the summer, his hat of choice is a well-worn ballcap.

Younger women really are driving the headwear market right now.

"Young people see hats as a way to stand out from the crowd and express themselves. It used to be that hats were a way of fitting in," said Casey Bush, director of the Headwear Information Bureau, NYC, a trade group.

The interest in retro clothes, including ladylike suits and mod jumpers, also is sparking interest in the pillbox and the trilby, typically a soft hat with an indented crown.

Another youth-fueled trend is the resurgence of baseball caps -- always a staple for men -- which was born out of last year's popular trucker hats, Dougherty explains. The "new" baseball caps have a shorter brim and are snug on the head.

The cloche is "a little more serious" because it is both stylish and functional, Dougherty notes, but "typically you have to make a choice between fashion and warmth."

But that doesn't mean warm hats can't look good.

Dougherty recommends winter hats in angora wool, especially in soft pastels, which have a soft look and likely will complement the black or camel coats most women wear without "matching" them.

Outdoor sports, however, require a different approach. Most people look for the warmest hats possible that will look OK with the rest of their gear, according to Sandra Rossi, senior product developer at L.L. Bean. Women favor light blue, purple and black, while men gravitate toward red, navy and charcoal gray.

Traditional wool ski hats -- with or without tassels -- remain the top look, especially those with Nordic patterns, Rossi says.

"Our hats are made of merino wool, which maintains its warmth even if it gets wet, but hats are now lined with microfleece so you don't get itchy hat head," she explains. The lining also might have wicking properties to pull moisture away from the head.

There are no rules to finding the perfect hat, Dougherty says. It has to be done through trial and error.

"A hat is something you have to try on. There is not a recipe for matching the right hat with the right head shape. The one thing you have to have is confidence. It's much more important than face shape or hair," she says.

Because hats can be relatively inexpensive, they encourage experimentation, Dougherty adds.

And experimenting with styles will be part of the upcoming season's trends as newboys and cowboy hats hit the scene.

Updated versions of newsboys, the sloped-front cap with a short brim, have been around for years, says Bush.

"Milliners change colors and trims to keep things fresh, but they don't change shapes as often," she says. "There are only so many hat shapes to choose from."

Bush says the newsboys have gotten bolder in recent years, straying from the traditional brownish plaids and tweeds to embrace bright colors such as purple and innovative fabrics like cashmere, fur felt and novelty-print silks.

The newsboy is a versatile shape that looks good in a variety of fabrics and is appropriate for many occasions, adds Siiri Dougherty, the senior buyer of women's accessories for J.C. Penney.

For example, a nubby tweed newsboy likely falls into the outerwear category, while a satin cap can be part of an outfit worn to the hottest club -- just look at Madonna and Cameron Diaz, both of whom are frequently photographed dashing into A-list events in their newsboys.

Don't be surprised, though, if you start seeing such fashionistas in cowboy hats. They are the next big thing -- again, according to Bush.

"You're going to see real women wearing them, executives, public relations people, New Yorkers," she says.

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

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