Picking a hat to suit your personal style

Dozing off isn't a good idea, particularly when you're sitting in a barber's chair and not paying much attention.

As I leave, virtually bald, the first thing I reach for is a hat. A woollen felt hat by Christys' London and purchased in Liberty department store, my hat covers up the 'damage', at least for the moment. But summer is around the corner, and I won't be able to keep the felt on for too much longer.

Hats are a peculiar fashion accessory. You can feel literally bald without one, and often conspicuous wearing one. Some retailers tell you that your face is made for wearing hats, even if you're fully aware that this couldn't be further from the truth.

With my hat firmly planted but still feeling extremely conscious about my skull, I head into Smart Alec hatters, a boutique store in Melbourne's Fitzroy that specialises in men's hats. Owner and designer Michael Albert has a sharp eye.

"You're wearing a Christys'. You can tell by the unique felt. It's a little softer than the ones we use," he says. That raises my confidence and self esteem, before he adds: "It's kind of a goofy look, a little cartoonish. The ones they might have worn in the 1950s."

Forget the past, what are men now looking for in hats, especially with the Spring Racing Carnival in full swing?  

For Albert, who describes himself as a self-taught 'hatter' rather than a milliner, there's a gradual move towards wider-brimmed hats, with trilby and pork-pie styles literally being overshadowed by fedoras featuring brims that are six centimetres wider.

If it's a trilby that you're after, Albert reaches for a fine white woven trilby made from shantung paper. Priced at $180, and available in navy, chocolate and charcoal, Albert compares the sensation to wearing a crisp, white shirt in summer.

If you want greater coverage with a wider brim for sun shading, there is the classic Panama straw hat, while those looking for a little nostalgia might gravitate to boaters, made of compressed straw as stiff as a board (think of the television series Brideshead Revisited in 1981). Although moderately priced between $65 and $160, somehow I can't see too many gents warming to this crown.

Albert cherry-picks hats from around the world, including the US and Europe. The only hat he refuses to sell is the logoed baseball-style cap. "You would be better off wearing a linen flat cap," he says. And at only $26, it's also as affordable as many of the caps favoured by younger generations.

For a more sophisticated pick than the flat cap there is the paper hat of Japanese label Devoa. Available at Cose Ipanema in Melbourne's CBD, these hats are made in a traditional herringbone weave of paper (93 per cent) and polyester (7 per cent). It's almost like wearing a halo rather than a hat, and it's so pliable that it can be thrown into a bag and still look great.

Sam Hussein, the manager and buyer for Cose Ipanema, agrees men are particular when it comes to wearing a hat. "They generally don't buy on a whim or whether something is in fashion. First and foremost, a hat has to suit them and what they want has to complement the outfit they have in mind," she says.

But the Devoa hats tick a number of boxes with Australian men, including the wide brim. "Men are becoming more conscious of protecting themselves from the sun."

Cose Ipanema also sells Tillman Lauderbach's baseball-style hats each season. Made of linen or cotton drill, and definitely without a logo, they evoke the good scout in most men. "Anyone can wear them," says Hussein. Well, those who don't mind spending $320, anyway.

For those who want to make a fashion statement, there's 'The Viridi-anne' black felt hat. A hat that could easily be worn by Jed Clampett in the 1960s series The Beverly Hillbillies, it signals a slow revival of the hillbilly look.

Jonathan Howard, the name behind Hatmaker in Paddington, Sydney, apprenticed with milliner Neil Grigg for 11 years before setting up shop eight years ago at South Darling Street.

Unlike the hats he creates for women, the selection for men is predominantly leather flat caps in hand-stitched leather or cream straw. He also sells fedora-style hats and classic Panamas.

"I find anyone from 20 through to 50 coming in for these hats. Australian men, as opposed to European, are generally more casual in what they wear. They're also extremely practical with sun protection," Howard says.

He also enjoys the challenge of creating a special hat to match a certain outfit. He's just finishing off a fedora-style hat, dyed blue to match his client's suit for the racing season. "Hats are becoming part of the wider wardrobe, not just for the track or those special occasions," adds Howard.

Not to mention for those silly enough to doze off in a barber's chair.

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