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WOMEN WITH FASHION SENSE ARE GOING FOR THEIR HATS

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Grab your coat and get your hat, and while you're at it, leave your worries on the doorstep, because this summer is the time for serious hat wearing. At least that's what the designers are saying. Marti, my wife, looks great in a hat, so when we go shopping she often tries on some smashing new number, says she is tempted and then finally walks away hatless.

She is not alone. But this summer, she and lots of other women who have a keenly developed fashion sense are finally going to go for the hat.Patricia Underwood, the well-known New York designer, says it's already happening. She has produced some eye-catching hats for all summer occasions - weddings, graduations and other outdoor events that require a certain amount of flair and sophistication. And if none of these occasions cut it, a hat may be worn to the market after a day at the pool.

Underwood has taken her inspiration this year from Jane Austen, making an inevitable leap from Hollywood to fashion. Some of her hats take their names from characters in Austen novels, while others offer an up-to-the-minute reinterpretation of the late 18th century styles.

When I chatted with Underwood on the phone, she let her urbane British accent illustrate the Jane Austen connection. The "gate" hat is intended for the sophisticated woman, and is done in black and white, which Underwood says is not only very strong for summer, but "has wonderful graphic effects. It is sewn into the shape, and that is quite an achievement. You should see the way the braid is sewn into that hat. There is a special visual effect achieved, with each stripe made out of 10 rows of braids. I hate to sound egocentric, but technically it is an achievement."

The "meadow," in paglina and horse hair braid, white with a transparent brim, semi-opaque, actually. Underwood says, "It lets the light shine through. A shadow is not passed on the face. The face is illuminated by the light coming through the brim. It is very light and very airy."

Underwood believes it also adds to the airiness of whatever outfit a woman may choose. "Letting the light shine through is very much a beauty thing."

The "emma" is a knit hat in cotton-rayon, "the sort of thing kept in a tote bag. It is very comfortable to wear. There is a little protection from the sun because of the brim. It's also a good little hat if one is not having a good hair day. And it's not too hot."

While all three of these hats are quite fetching, many women may be a bit hesitant to try them. The way they resolve that hesitation, according to Underwood, is to realize that hats must go with clothing, whatever a woman already has in her wardrobe.

"The right hat can accent several outfits," says Underwood. "But they have to enhance the wearer, make her look more beautiful. They also provide protection from the sun sometimes. The sun is quite strong this time of year, so you should use sunscreen, but you should get the added protection of a hat."

Underwood is also convinced that this year's clothing styles are very simple, meaning they "take hats very well." She has noticed that there is a major trend this year toward hats. For women, like my wife, who are tempted to wear hats, but have never been able to bring themselves to do so, she advises they try on hats in a full-length mirror.

"A woman should imagine what clothes she will wear it with. It's the same approach she would use with shoes and handbags. A hat is also an accessory. Sometimes one is drawn to a hat because of a ribbon or some color on the hat - but it may not go with the clothes. The fact is the silhouette must complement the clothing. A brim may look glamorous in the shop, but if a woman can't wear it every day, it won't work. A medium brim may be more useful than a large one. It's like wearing low heel or high heel shoes. In every day life, you want a medium heel or low heel. I try to think of those things - what WILL go with a summer dress that a woman will actually wear?"

Underwood says many women consider it more daring if a hat is big or the brim is wide. They may avoid a daring hat even when they wear daring clothing. "You need confidence to wear a hat, and you can get it if you always remember that the onlooker's eyes are drawn directly to the face and the eyes."

Underwood also suggests trying to discern how the hat will complement the length of the skirt a woman will wear, or what will complement her shoulder or neckline. "The hat accessorizes beauty. Trying on a hat to match the neckline comes with practice. You want to see how much skin is shown, and how it is balanced with the hat."

According to Underwood, there is no magic theory for figuring this out. It just takes practice. A woman will get a feel for it - and she will just know what is right for her. For a woman to become a hat-wearer, she must accept the idea that she can wear a hat whenever she wants to. As Underwood puts it, "There is no convention these days as to when you wear a hat. You wear one when you feel like it."