Skip to main content

Forgive your man if he mistakes you for a hat – this season, anyway.

Even famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote a book about a husband who did just that with his wife, will not be after him for a case study on the disorder known as visual agnosia, the inability of the brain to understand visual information.

And that's because you might very well be a hat. A flip through the pages of this season's fashion magazines makes it very clear: Hats are big – literally. They're wearing the models rather than the other way around. Witness the oversized, downright Seussical furry and stripey wonders in the latest Marc Jacobs campaign or check out the Louis Vuitton advertisement in which some lovely ladies on a train don't just carry bags in their hands or on their laps but appear to have veritable suitcases on their heads. The tall, pouchy LV hats – designed by the famed Londonbased milliner Stephen Jones, who also did the Jacobs hats – are enough to make a woman rethink her packing routine next time she flies. Forget checking any luggage. Take a generous carry-on and wear one of those hats. A girl could stuff a week's worth of lingerie under it.

Such chapeaux could just be a manifestation of the fashion world's continuing obsession with accessories as vehicles of creativity. Jones has called hats a "punctuation point of the body." Unlike shoes, which are fanciful but also utilitarian, fashion hats are not made to be at all functional. So might they hold some new sociocultural significance?

As fashion historian Madeleine Ginsburg writes in her book The Hat:Trends and Traditions , hats have always had a variety of meanings. That the head is the "seat of intelligence" makes it an important focal point for communication about status, religious affiliation and group identity. (You know a fireman or a policeman by his hat, after all.)

But the fashion of headwear has also reflected the socio-cultural mood of the times. The top hat and bonnet, for example, were symbols of the Victorian world. The top hat suggested authority and ambition, its shape reminiscent of chimneys in the Industrial Revolution. The bonnet, meanwhile, signified the ideal Victorian woman, who, Ginsburg writes, was "dependent, decorative, non-intellectual and submissive." The poor dear was blinkered like a horse.

Several milliners attribute the current love of decorative head architecture to the hat-wearing extravaganzas of the royal wedding and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The fashion influence of Diana, Princess of Wales, caused a similar uptick in hat interest in the mid-1980s. Added to the influence of real royalty is that of the celebrity monarchy – the pop princesses (Lady Gaga, Madonna, Dita von Teese) who sport noteworthy hats as a way to stamp their brand. Movies spark hat trends, too. Customers often come in wanting Kate Winslet's hat from Titanticor Andie MacDowell's fromFour Weddings and a Funeral , milliners report.

Of course, any discussion about a resurgence of hats demands an appreciation for their death starting in the sixties. Before then, no respectable person would dream of leaving the house without one, explains Oriole Cullen, curator of fashion and textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and co-curator of the exhibition Hats: An Anthology, currently touring the United States. Practicality played a part in the decline. As cars became more prevalent, getting into and out of them with a hat was seen as a nuisance.

Social rebellion was at play, too. "In the fifties, girls wanted to look like their mothers and, in the sixties, mothers wanted to look like their daughters. The first two things [that went were the] white gloves and hats," Cullen explains. "In a sense, the hair became more a part of the individual's look than her hat."

But now it seems that many women need something more to make a statement. "Hats are an extension of yourself, and they're also claiming your identity," notes Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, chief curator of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where the V&A's hat exhibition is currently on show. "They say what you actually are or who you would like to be."

Perhaps we should blame H&M and all those big-box stores that churn out clothes for the masses. "There's an appetite for people to wear something slightly more eclectic because a lot of clothing has become so homogenized," says Karyn Gingras, the award-winning milliner who owns Lilliput Hats in Toronto and has designed collections for Holt Renfrew for 20 years. "A hat sets you apart."

Gingras also thinks hats play an important attentiongetting role in today's digital culture. "People don't look at each other any more. They walk along the street, head down, concentrating on texting," she says. "But when someone wears a hat, a passerby stops and looks up. A hat forces people out of their insular routine."

My inclination is to see hats as an object of hope. Isn't that why we want to wear them on New Year's Eve? In the context of the Recession That Never Ends, maybe Jones is encouraging us to be optimistic.

In the book that accompanied the V&A exhibition, which he co-wrote with Cullen, he mentions the 1961 film A Taste of Honey, set in postwar Britian. When an improverished mother and daughter flee their flat to avoid paying rent, they take two suitcases, a caged bird and a stylish hat box from the milliner Rudolf.

Surely, a glamorous life is just around the corner.