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BY DESIGN : Hat Tricks : Elisa Ballestas is one of those rare women who looks great in any hat. Her ideas can help others do the same.

July 14, 1994|MAUREEN SAJBEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hats can be a sore subject. Every time designers declare that the "hat is back," many of us groan and think how nice it would be to wear one well. Truth is, few women do. Bad examples abound--witness the occasional attempts by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But women such as Elisa Ballestas give us hope, as Jacqueline Kennedy in her pillbox and Audrey Hepburn in her wide-as-a-doorway chapeau once did. A hat lover for 30 years, since age 7, Ballestas imported hats briefly several years ago from her native Colombia. Now, the Westlake Village resident is not a businesswoman but rather a student at Santa Monica College.

While others think of hats as superfluous and antiquated bits of costuming, she revolves her wardrobe around a collection of 60 or so boaters and berets, cloches and creased crown felts. Ballestas says she wears hats 80% of the time, to weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, church services, horse races, garden parties--even to class.

Doing so gives her, and any other wearer, instant status, she says. "People assume you're somebody. Cars even drive slower in the next lane."

But even if she didn't turn heads, Ballestas would wear hats for the fun of it. "Clothing has been so boring" for the last few years, she says, but millinery is always changing. "Designers like Eric Javits are making hats that are affordable and wearable." (Other labels in her collection include Oscar de la Renta, Kokin, David Cohen and the local Ariane Millinery.)

In Ballestas' mind, the only thing that doesn't pair well with a hat is timidity.

"You have to be more self-assured to wear a hat," she says. "The moment you don't care what people think about you is the moment you've arrived."

Where to Find a Good Hat

* I. Magnin in Pasadena

* Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills

* Nordstrom in San Francisco or Topanga

* Street fairs and art fairs

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