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FASHION : Hats Off to 'In' Headgear : They offer a lot of room for a personal statement. Some stores go to extremes--such as offering the majestic and the bizarre.

March 31, 1994|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hats are like religion. They come into favor every other generation, stir up passion, then are forsaken by the young.

It's their in cycle now. Those with hat hang-ups have passed the buying power torch; fresh hat-friendly types have seized it.

So, headgear is hot. Even in Southern California, where locks have long bleached in the sun.

If there's any doubt, look around you. Hats go to the beach, to parties, to school. They are featured at just about every clothing store in Ventura County, including shoe and swimwear shops. Even the Gap offers customers a few straw boaters and, if the Gap's got 'em, they must be in.

Hats offer a lot of room for a personal statement. You can express adventure with a safari style, modesty in a veiled pillbox, nonchalance in a tam. They can complement an outfit, add height to your stature or hide bad hair.

One thing they don't do particularly well is keep good hair looking good. We asked hatter Jessica Hanson of Ojai what the industry was doing to overcome this fault, and she admitted that there was nothing on the horizon.

The secret to overcoming the flaw, she said, is to carefully choose a hat that is comfortable and "just keep it on until you get home."

Hanson has been in hats since their recent renaissance. She opened her boutique, Jessica, in 1989, and put in a few hats for fun and decoration. They took off; now, they are all she sells.

She carries fashions from cloches to straws, as well as further-out styles such as gold lame jockey caps. She likes wearing hats, trimming hats and helping customers find flattering styles that will serve them well.

"There's a hat for every face," she said.

Whether there's a face for every hat is another question. It comes to mind upon entering the Village Hatter at Ventura Harbor.

This place takes millinery to its outer limits. It has fashion hats, all right; but it goes beyond fashion to the majestic and the bizarre.

We could hardly resist trying on the Viking helmets, the felt stovepipes or the knitted beanies with attached dreadlocks.

"A lot of people buy hats," store manager Lydia Sandoval said, which seemed like a given. In fact, the store has been operating in this location for 10 years, far longer than the current hat sanction has been in effect.

Over time, customers have learned to come to the shop for diverse head-covering needs.

"Church people buy church hats," said Sandoval, indicating wide silk hats with silk flowers that are kept on top shelves.

Car club members come to get matching nostalgic straws, the kind that tap dancers used to wave. Teen-agers, she said, have recently begun to favor derbies.

"I think they see them in a movie, and they think that looks cool," she said.

Best sellers in the store are Greek fishing hats for men and berets for women, with soft bush hats for both sexes running close behind. Beyond that, she couldn't guess; there are hundreds of styles, each with its following.

One thing to watch out for should you decide to indulge: Hats are addictive. Hanson has acquired 20 of them, Sandoval 25.

A regular customer at Village Hatter, Nila La Duke of Ventura, admitted to 15, but offered a genetic excuse.

"My grandmother was a hat freak," she said while trying on a massive church hat.

Her companion, Chris Klein of Ventura, another collector, said hats draw more compliments from men than any other clothing item. She teams hats with many outfits, and may choose an offbeat combination to fit her personal taste.

"If you feel good in an outfit, no one will say, 'Oh, that's not the style,' " she said.

On the face of it, that seemed like a good theory, but it could be put to a severe test with a dreadlock beanie.

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