"Everyone seems to want hats to stage a big comeback," Lesley M.M. Blume writes in Let's Bring Back, her charming salute to the trappings of days gone by, "but no one is willing to take the first step of wearing them consistently. Let's be bold and take the plunge together."
Passing through Toronto recently for a book-related shindig thrown by The Society, a neo-salon for modern bon vivants, Blume held true to her written word, donning a black 1940s-style chapeau that made at least one guest think she was a flight attendant with Porter Airlines. Designers Samantha and Caillianne Beckerman, twin sisters and unapologetic eccentrics, also wore caps on their crowns that night.
As these trendsetters demonstrated, eye-catching toppers need not be reserved for weddings (royal or otherwise) and the Derby. But if you need an excuse to sport a brand-new bonnet, this is Easter weekend.
"I actually wear hats consistently and I've kind of become known for it," Blume says from New York in a follow-up phone chat. "They're incredibly dramatic without being overly costume-y. They're highly individualistic."
Some of today's hottest designers agree, having sent a parade of panamas, boaters and big-brimmed chapeaux down the runway at the spring shows, many paired with this season's must-have colour-block looks. At Prada, floppy striped-cotton versions hung across the backs of models' necks, while straw was the material of choice at several other big shows, including Marc Jacobs's fab disco fantasia, which featured wide-rimmed toppers in saturated shades (the yellow-gold ones resembled halos in Renaissance paintings). Missoni's square black numbers, meanwhile, were trimmed in the house's signature multicoloured zigzag prints.
But you don't have to go high-end to get in on the trend. Having already built a following for her flower-child garlands and petit-eared headbands, Torontonian Lara Vincent has started to introduce hats into her budding namesake line.
"I love to make sculptures that people can wear on their heads," she says via e-mail from London, where she is refreshing her millinery skills at the London College of Fashion. Many of Vincent's shapes start off traditionally masculine and adopt various personalities as she adds leather, suede, netting and lace.
As for the hot go-to material - straw - Toronto milliner Karyn Gringras insists that the beauty and versatility of the material reaches beyond pastoral styles, saying it can be dyed, braided, folded and tied into limitless shapes.
Gringras also notes that panama is actually a type of straw first and a hat style second. The high-quality, superfine fibre comes from Ecuador and arrives at her boutique, Lilliput Hats, unformed. Only after wetting, steaming and sculpting does it begin to resemble a pretty topper. Straw also offers breathability where other materials don't, she says. "It's much lighter and fits looser; it's not so precious."
Gringras regularly fields requests for custom creations but her store is stocked with straw hats that appeal to a potpourri of tastes: trim with tailored grosgrain-ribbon detail, patterns including polka dots and cherry motifs, sweet cloches for dames and jaunty porkpies for gents.
Many designers are also playing with classic proportions. Tiny design tweaks can add an updated twist or, sometimes, an asymmetrical edge. Canadian brand Big It Up's Stingy Brim straw fedora, for instance, is less film noir than 21st-century cool cat. "People are surrendering to changing their everyday look," Big It Up director Steve Foster says. "They're understanding that hats can be an extension of your character."
No matter how cool the hat, though, it must, of course, flatter the wearer. Foster recommends wide brims for oval faces and upturned brims for eyeglass-wearers. "The purpose of the hat is to enhance your look; it shouldn't be hiding you," he adds.
While Jeff Farbstein, executive vice-president and merchandising manager at Harry Rosen, says that hats aren't for everyone, they're just the ticket, he feels, for dress-to-impress types (and those who want to be). "You have to be confident to go outside the fashion norm," he says, "but you put one on and all of a sudden it's a head turner."
Not to mention a mood lifter. "A few years ago, it was the easiest way to distinguish myself and it still is," says Blume, the author. "Hats can be a really joyous expression of self."