Long before there were sun screens in plastic containers, there were parasols and sun hats. Parasols remain passe. But wide-brim hats are back as a chic way to help foil ultraviolet rays.
Paired with an SPF 15--or higher--sun screen, they provide good coverage and a certain joie de vivre no matter how practical or basic the design. An example is the regulation California lifeguard hat, an oversize, functional model made of hand-woven palm that retails for about $10. Because it's linked to a glamorous occupation, the hat is considered a trendy summer accessory all the way from the West Coast to the West Indies.
Carol Walker, owner of Cindirco, the Encinitas-based company that makes the hat, also offers fancier versions. They have one or two rows of fringe, a design detail suggested by her 16-year-old son. But despite input from her own teen-ager, Walker notes: "At the beach, hats are being worn mainly by surfers and people in their late 20s or older. Surfers are exposed to the sun a lot and seem to realize the danger. But the very young haven't discovered the need for a hat yet."
George Christy, columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, discovered the need after he developed skin cancer about 12 years ago. His doctor told him "to cover my head and wear sun block," and Christy obeyed. He now has a vast arsenal that includes baseball caps and straws with brims.
Arnold Klein, assistant clinical professor at UCLA and the Beverly Hills dermatologist who told Christy to cover his head, cautions: "Hats are beneficial, but don't let them give you a false sense of protection. On a bright, clear day, the sun's rays can be reflected and scattered even in the shade." His recommendation is a hat plus a sunscreen rated SPF 15 or higher.
Carl S. Korn, assistant clinical professor at USC and a Sherman Oaks dermatologist, has an anti-sun list that includes "wearing hats, long-sleeve garments, even gloves and avoiding recreational activities between 10 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon, standard time."
Although sun protection is a serious subject, Oliver Kroeten and Louise Gonzales, who design under the name Oliver Louise, give their hats a lighthearted treatment.
Kroeten says business is getting a boost from two trends: Men are going for bolder hats and fashion is dictating pale skin. "The look is not to be tan, even in Southern California."
Oliver Louise offers personalized creations priced from $60 to $160 in cotton or straw. They're topped with anything from flora and fauna to the L.A. skyline or a breakfast assortment of toast, eggs and bacon made out of papier-mache.
The breakfast hat was commissioned by Magenta (the only name she uses), the new owner of Millie's diner in Silver Lake. She wore it first for a guest appearance on "A.M. Los Angeles." The extravagant chapeau now hangs in Magenta's restaurant or gives her shade.
"I'm blond and really fair, so hats are important for me. I have about 15 and they're all large-brimmed. It's how you learn to dress if you don't like the sun."
At Bullocks Wilshire, hat buyer Russell Brock says: "We've sold more large-brim hats this year than we have the last five years combined. First and foremost, it's fashion. And of course, there's more and more being said about staying out of the sun. A lot of women are buying for that reason."
Tall women were once the only customers for big-brim hats, but not anymore. Lack of inches doesn't keep a woman away, and some companies are making large hats specifically for shorter customers. Brock explains they have less brim in back, more in front, which tends to make the wearer look taller.
Proximity can be a problem with wide-brim millinery, but Los Angeles designer Elizabeth Marcel has a solution. It's a versatile, romantic straw. "One side flips up so a woman can wear it to a party and be close to people." But if she turns it completely around, she has a full brim in front to give her sun protection.
Marcel's customers are "just about anyone concerned with their complexion and their hair." Added to that are convertible-lovers and travelers. For open-air driving, Marcel suggests "the deeper the crown, the easier the hat will stay on." And for easy packing, she has "soft linen hats with enough brim to cover your nose."
Marcel designs summer straws that look as good with a pretty sun dress as they do with shorts and a T-shirt or jeans. They're one-of-a-kind with prices ($90 to $195) that reflect their uniqueness. But at Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, there is a selection of millinery under $50.
Buyer Nisa Lasker says black and natural are the two basic colors. "Some have little roses, some have bows." And as might be expected, her twentysomething customers don't seem to realize they're making an investment in their future: "They're only buying them for fun and fashion."