Eliot Whittall thinks it's partly a matter of simple economics: As clothes become more expensive, women have learned to make do with accessories to add spark to their wardrobes. "Costume jewelry is sort of leveling off and now they're moving up," he explains logically.
"Up" to Eliot Whittall means only one thing--the head. More specifically, the crown.
As a young hat designer, the renewed interest in headbands, turbans, hairpieces and hats fits in nicely with his view of the world. Hats, he contends, help a woman break away from the grind. You don't necessarily wear one every day, but if you're in career garb from 9 to 5, at 5:30 there's nothing like poising a veiled cocktail hat across your forehead to change both your look and mood.
"The people who are very conservative looking are the ones who want the wild evening hats," he adds. "Hats are the fantasy items of a wardrobe."
The 28-year-old New Yorker, who is half of the design team Whittall & Shon, is obviously a big believer in fantasy. Although personally conservative ("I'm shy to wear a costume on Halloween," he says), his new spring hats are incrusted with sequins, bows, pearls, glitter and pleated satin fans.
"We're pretty popular for a certain type of thing--this dressy stuff," he says. "I'd say 'decorated' is the key. Very frilly. Very feminine. They're not the sort of things you wear around all the time."
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Whittall and a friend from school, Eric Javits, started making hats after they were graduated "to see if we could sell them." They could.
On His Own
"We made little beaded, sequined hats by hand. We didn't know anything about making things in volume," Whittall says. But after seven years, Richard Shon, who had joined the company as a designer, bought out Javits' share of the business, and Javits went off on his own.
Whittall says his hats have been worn by some of the characters on "Dynasty" and that the television series continues to be an important influence on women's fashions.
"Again, it's the fantasy life style. Those ladies wear elaborate beaded suits and hats and heels to go shopping." Women may not have servants preparing their scrambled eggs in the real world, but, as Whittall puts it, "anyone can buy a $75 hat and dress up."
Younger customers, he says, are still impressed by the hat-loving Princess Diana. Young girls often arrive in department stores with photographs of Diana in her latest creation and request something similar. That explains why the most popular hat in the line is the Diana, a tri-cornered hat of horsehair, available in a variety of colors. Whittall says the hat also happens to be "the most flattering to the most people."
Whittall & Shon hats are available at Nordstrom.
Now working solo, Eric Javits is developing his own name as a designer. Having studied art, he found that hats "sort of combined a lot of my interests in terms of form and texture and color.
"Hats are like little sculptures in a sense," he says. "The face is a form and volume, and you juxtapose another form against it."
At 29, Javits approaches his metier with restrained logic.
"I come from a very traditional background," he explained. "Everyone's involved in law and politics."
But he also has an artistic streak in him.
"My grandmother designed costumes for the Schubert Theater in the '20s, and my great-great-grandmother designed headdresses for Austro-Hungarian royalty."
Although Javits clearly caters to the modern woman, he has an Old World attitude toward his craft. He may make a demure hat trimmed with velvet bows that Leslie Caron might have worn in "Gigi," or create a veiled headpiece of pearls on fishnet fit for a White House wedding, but then he'll turn around and design a hat of black patent leather on violet taffeta that is neither Old World nor demure.
"Hats are like the ultimate fashion statement," Javits says. "They're sort of like the exclamation at the end of a sentence. They're the finishing touch.
"If you look through history, women have worn hats more than they haven't. In the late '60s and into the '70s, until the 'Annie Hall' movie, they really weren't around. And they're not mandatory anymore," he says with regret.
Consequently, Javits often finds himself in a position of re-educating women.
"I'm talking about the Baby Boom generation. They don't know what shapes suit their faces. To a lot of women in their 30s, hats are a lot of silliness!"
But once a woman really knows hats, she "gets hooked on them," he says. "The whole idea is to flatter your face. And you don't have to fuss with your hair. Hats can hide a combination of sins."
Eric Javits hats are available at Nordstrom.