Heady Days For Milliners

University of Chicago reference librarian Jean McKenzie, 47, never wore hats, even when the Windy City delivered its most blustery winter weather. Then two years ago, she went to London, and friends insisted that to be fashionable, she had to wear a hat. So McKenzie tracked down a Chicago milliner and took the plunge, ordering a custom-made, eye-catching chapeau to match her outfit.

She was hooked. "I needed a hat for the winter, then a straw hat for the summer, then another winter hat. Last year, my husband got into it and bought me a hat for Christmas," she says.

With hatboxes mounting, McKenzie is finding herself au courant. Fashionable hats are making a comeback across the nation. A Chicago cancer fund-raiser in November, whose theme was hats, drew hundreds of bedecked participants. Brasserie Jo, a popular French restaurant, designates Thursday evening as Hat Night--customers wearing hats get a free dessert. "The hats add a great flair to the restaurant. They're very retro, very 1940s," says Richard Melman, president of Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, which owns Brasserie Jo.

That's quite a revival for an item of clothing that virtually disappeared a generation ago. Once, no self-respecting woman would be caught in public bareheaded, whether applying for a job or sipping a cocktail. The decline of hats began in the 1950s with teased hairdos. Jacqueline Kennedy's pillboxes gave hats a brief reprieve, but by the 1970s they were doomed. Newly minted feminists had tossed them on the heap of sexist artifacts along with bras and girdles. Except for some religious groups, such as the Southern Baptists and Orthodox Jews, women went bareheaded until the '90s. "We had to go through this period of not having to wear hats," says Chicago milliner Eia Radosavlijevic. "Now, we're into another generation that never wore hats." But, he says, they remember their mothers' hats fondly.

To promote hats, a group of 10 independent Chicago hatmakers, including Radosavlijevic, formed the Millinery Arts Alliance in 1995, adopting Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of milliners. "The more people out there in hats, the better for me. We sell each other's stuff all the time," says alliance member Christina Bevilacqua, who specializes in soft fabric numbers with botanical trims.

BABY STEPS. The alliance throws open houses in milliners' studios and hat parties in private homes. In November, it sponsored its second successful Hat Walk through boutiques in Chicago's fashion-conscious Lincoln Park neighborhood. Customers are mostly professional women in their 30s and 40s who have to be coaxed into their first purchase. "I do lots of `first hats' for people," says Oak Park (Ill.) milliner Kate Burch. "You get them used to wearing one with their coat. Then they come back and get one that is arty or outrageous."

One reason women have to be coaxed is that they don't know how to wear hats, and they fear "hat hair." So the Sweet William boutique in suburban Hinsdale recently invited 20 women to breakfast and a lecture on how to select flattering hats. It worked: Participants snapped up 10, priced up to $350.

I've been bitten by the bug myself. A few years ago, I plunked down $125 at Marshall Field's for a broad-brimmed red wool job with a big black bow at the back. After I worked up my nerve to wear it, strangers on the street accosted me with cries of: "Great hat!" Soon, I was flaunting it all the time. For me, it was a return to a childhood love: The best part of Easter was getting down my white straw hat with pink silk roses from the recesses of my closet. A 1966 Polaroid shows my grandmother, Aunt Earline, mother, sister, and me all wearing fancy hats. However, the Easter, 1971, snapshot shows our hats had disappeared.

By then, few women were buying hats, says Barbara Shutt, former divisional merchandise manager of millinery and wigs for Marshall Field's. In the 1950s, Field's venerable State Street store devoted almost 25% of one floor to hats. Couture hats, at up to $500, were in the French Room. Others were in the Debutante Room and the Hat Bar.

EASY ELEGANCE. Field's hasn't quite gone back to those heady times, but it has hired a full-time "millinery specialist" to measure women's heads and fit them with proper hats. And it's taking custom orders for Evanston (Ill.) milliner Linda Campisano. "We're planning to continue to build and develop this business," says assistant store manager Stephanie Biery. The fancy hats are attracting attention, especially from tourists who have friends snap photos of them in Field's most outrageous styles.

How big is this hat comeback? Department store sales of all hats rose 2.9% last year, to $720 million, following a 5.5% increase in 1994. But sales from boutiques and specialty shops aren't included, so the overall market size is unknown.

There are signs that hats may be back for a long stay. New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, the only U.S. school with a two-year certificate in millinery, graduates up to 500 milliners a year, up from 25 a decade ago. They dream of women like Janice Koeber, an executive with Trans Union Corp. She owns 150 hats. "People at work often come in to check which hat I'm wearing. Everyone calls me the Hat Lady," she says. "This is an easy way to return to elegance. We're trying to convert other women by example."

My conversion is complete. I own nine. I just hope the fashion mavens don't try to bring back those white gloves.

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