Why hats are a top fashion statement

Hats are not just an accessory for special occasions, they can really reflect your personality.

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In a recent lecture to American students from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), part of the State University of New York, I was asked whether I felt hats were still relevant. This came about because the class of 20-somethings, many hailing from blue-blooded families of Connecticut, had 'fessed up to watching the British royal wedding on TV.

The overall thing these kids had remembered about the wedding nuptials was not the pomp or ceremony, or even the dress, but the fact that 99 per cent of female guests (with the exception of the British prime minister's wife - let's not go there) attending the ceremony at Westminster Abbey had worn hats.

By all accounts, hats in America - besides the ubiquitous baseball cap - are virtually non-existent.

When I told them this wasn't a question of style, more occasion, and that hats were often considered an extension of a woman's wealth, status and class in the same way a flashy sports car might be to a man, they were amazed. Few had ever been to an event where formal hats were required. Fewer still had stopped to consider why you might actually want to wear a hat.

Had they never watched Hollywood greats such as Bette Davis or Joan Crawford work a hat in a movie? Did they not question why wrinkly rockers pulled a Panama shyly over an eye when posing for Annie Leibovitz on Vanity Fair covers? Show me a stylish man - or woman - I told them, and there'll be a hat lurking somewhere.

And yet, hailing from a country where a casual, democratic dress code is taken for granted, they were not convinced. They eyed me suspiciously when I revealed I had recently invested in a Pachacuti felt Fedora in an attempt to mimic Kate Moss or Madonna on a bad hair day. They sniggered when I told them hats can be far more effective than heels when it comes to working with celebrities on shoots. It's not just how they look, I explained, it's how they make you feel. Letting your hat do the talking can be an remarkably powerful way of voicing who you are (or want the world to think you are).

Grace Jones uses Philip Treacy's fierce orbs to help punch out her image now that she is (almost) a pensioner. Actors and musicians from Frank Sinatra to Robert Pattinson and Johnny Depp have worn them off-screen and stage to bring about the sort of classy showbiz allure found on-screen. Last week I watched Sienna Miller, the star of Terence Rattigan's play Flare Path, in London's West End, use a 1940s hat to great Shakespearean effect, unpinning it to release her long, golden hair. A hat can equally step in when the crowning glory starts to wane (or was never much to shout about in the first place).

How you wear your hair with a hat, especially if you are a lady, is as crucial as which hat you pick, too.

How clever of the Duchess of Cambridge to concoct that neat Forties "do" under her small head-hugging number last week at Epsom Race Course. Her choice of hat reminded me of another duchess - Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor - for its chic simplicity.

Standing next to royal style flops Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, both wearing wide-brimmed hats, Catherine's pillbox rocked by virtue of its restraint.

One of my aunties was a milliner. I can remember her signature was a small hat packed with character. She taught me how a bolt of colour, or single fancy trim, works as effectively as a giant salad bowl or lobster-type affair. Tiny "dynamite-effect" hat armour is often worn front-row by fashionistas such as Japanese Vogue's Anna Dello Russo and Italian Vogue's blue-haired Anna Piaggi. Another legendary hat-wearer, the late Isabella Blow, admitted to wearing hers as a decoy for shyness, not just to make a style statement.

Ultimately everyone should have at least one hat moment and not wait until they are old enough to wear "a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me", as the Jenny Joseph poem had it.

Mine was wearing a tiny kite-shaped hat by Stephen Jones to a blustery royal race meeting where I had to judge a millinery competition. As the wind whipped up, just the string at the back of my hat, decorated with miniature colourful bunting, danced about magnificently, while the triangular crown piece stayed intact. The woman whose hat won (and whose hats are deemed legendary within the race-owning fraternity) whispered my hat was, in fact, better.

We are going to be seeing some incredible styles this June at various global race meetings. Relevant? As the Americans say, you better believe it. (And in the end they did).