Disney's latest 3D movie, Alice in Wonderland, left me with the feeling that Colleen Atwood, the multiple-Oscar-winning costume designer, had somewhat missed a golden opportunity. Sure, Alice and the Red Queen were given some delicious treats to wear from the neck down, but my take on Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter, or at least his hat? Not nearly mad enough. Ever since Lady Gaga appeared on the scene wearing spectacular lace and telephone creations by Philip Treacy, orbs by Nasir Mazhar and bunny ears veiled in black lace by the French millinery sensation Maison Michel, hats - the madder the better - have become a talking point.
There was headgear aplenty on the Paris catwalks last week. Despite a seeming return to utilitarian chic and a nod to sportswear at fashion week, trailblazing designers such as Hussein Chalayan and Comme des Garçons championed breathtaking headpieces. Jean Paul Gaultier did fur bonnets. Sonia Rykiel put giant pom poms on headbands and Stephen Jones's equestrian toppers for Dior ensured that hats will remain the crucial accessories for autumn/winter 2010/2011.
Just as they are now, in fact. Ever since cool girls such as Lou Doillon, Milla Jovovich, Anouck Lepere, Lara Stone and Erin Wasson vowed never to leave the house without plonking on lace fripperies designed by their chum Laetitia Crahay (who doubles as the head of accessories at Chanel and artistic director of the Parisien hat-makers Maison Michel), hats have been enjoying a fashion moment. With less than a week to go before one of the most important events of the millinery calendar, the Dubai World Cup, we can reveal that this season's racing colours are silver grey, blush pink, lavender and "greige" with flowers replacing feathers as the trimming du jour. And be warned: experts on the field say fascinators are a non-starter.
This year, the world's most extravagant horse-racing fixture, which takes place on Saturday, will require ladies' hats to be even more dazzling than usual, in keeping with the World Cup's enormous new venue, the state-of-the-art Meydan Grandstand. "I can't even bring myself to say the 'f' word," says the leading couture milliner Cozmo Jenks, about the feathers-stuck-in-a-cone style that has blighted millinery in recent seasons.
"When I'm asked for a fascinator, my heart sinks," agrees Edwina Ibbotson, whose elaborate bespoke creations are found at major race meetings worldwide. "There's a huge difference between what you can buy off the peg and creations that appear to be light as a feather but withstand a gusty course," says Ibbotson. Function, the historical reason for wearing a hat (to shield the head from sunlight and protect from branches/tumbles when riding), remains paramount to the racing set, she says.
"The horse-owners and trainers want something extravagant, beautiful and striking which won't blow away and isn't so big they can't see the horses. A see-through brim is just about doable, along with something classic they can pull out and wear again over the year." Ibbotson, who runs an international business from her atelier in West London, also reveals that this season's trimmings are romantic flowers rather than feathers, on wide saucer-shape brims and classic Chanel-like wide boaters.
"Hats complement this season's ultra-feminine feel. The palette is nude pink. Although for Dubai, I imagine clothes will be brighter, which works well with black and white, which are classic hat colours." (Think Cecil Beaton's designs in the iconic Ascot scene from the 1964 musical My Fair Lady.) "Philip Treacy started a trend for fascinators which dispensed with the traditional brim and crown," says Siegfried Hesbacher, the London-based, German-born hat-maker who has been the official milliner to Royal Ascot for the past three years, and whose brand, Siggi, is available in the UAE at Candella in the Village Mall, Dubai.
"Milliners like Philip Treacy have successfully secured a place for hats within contemporary society," agrees Chloe Scrivener, a millinery tutor at the London College of Fashion. This institution, along with the Royal College of Art, has been a launch pad for emerging stars such as Olivia Roat, whose work references Italian baroque and state-of-the-art 3D, and the 25-year-old Nasir Mazhar, who debuted recently at London Fashion Week and has collaborated with Gareth Pugh and Richard Nicoll and made hats for Madonna and Lady Gaga.
Scrivener is impressed by the fact that, as well as designing for pop stars, young milliners grasp the artisan heritage of the craft, which appeals to women of all ages. (Roat was recently commissioned by the mayoress of London to make several hats.) "Paris used to lead the world in hats; now London is a serious contender," says Sylvia Fletcher, the ladies milliner at James Lock & Co, London's oldest hat makers (est 1676), which holds several royal warrants for the British Royal Family.
Roat and Mazhar can hope their careers mirror the success of the legendary Stephen Jones, the champion of modern hatters, whose Paris catwalk collaborations with John Galliano have helped return the hat to the fashion lexicon. His retrospective, Hats, an Anthology by Stephen Jones, which began in London in 2009, is soon to be rolled out into a world tour lasting six years. Next stop: Brisbane, Australia.
"I think hats for racing are always about dressing up and having fun," says Jones, just back from the prêt-à-porter shows in Paris and en route to Belgium, where a show of his work will be staged at MoMu in Antwerp from September 8. "You should go for something flamboyant and a conversation-starter. I like fascinators, but for the races you want something a little bit more substantial. You don't want to look like a chicken has just landed on your head," says the milliner, whose hats can be found at Saks Fifth Avenue and at the three Dior boutiques in Dubai.
"In Dubai there is a sense of decorum. The World Cup is an elegant affair. You mustn't look like you are going to a cocktail party wearing a strapless dress and strappy shoes. I think flowers go with dresses and feathers go with suits because they give movement and lightness to tailored shoulders. "It's a little bit more about dresses this season, but if you are channelling that Balmain square-shouldered look, you should go for something dramatic - not fussy feathers.
"We have some strong lavender-coloured race hats which have a 1950s couture feel at Dior. The leopard-skin print stops them being grandmotherly lavender," says Jones. Also, just in time for the World Cup, it's possible for the first time to purchase hats by Philip Treacy from the online boutique Net-a-Porter, which ships to the UAE, and Boutique 1 is stocking a selection of his designs too. "The headpieces trend which began last season looks set to continue," says Holli Rogers, the buying director at Net-a-Porter. "So we are delighted to be offering six styles by a milliner synonymous with luxurious statement hats, whose designs have adorned the heads of the rich and famous at events across the social calendar.
"Any one of these styles would make the perfect addition to your race-day outfit, but if I had to choose, I would either go for the beautiful sculptural bow headpiece in fuchsia, or for a more neutral colour palette, the silver sculptural bow headpiece with a crest of crystal-embellished feathers. My advice would be keep the rest of your outfit pared down and let your headpiece do the talking," says Rogers.
Fletcher adds: "I think there is a fine line between a hat that is extreme or simply silly. Hats in the shape of football pitches or ice cream cones aren't good for the race image." "What you wear to a race meeting depends on where you are going to be standing," says Jenks, the official milliner to the 2010 Goodwood season in the UK, who has visited the World Cup. Judy Bentinck, who trained under Rose Cory, the milliner to the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, expands on this: "If you are wearing a hat in the royal enclosure at Ascot or are among racehorse owners at the Dubai World Cup, you should cover as much of your head as possible," she advises. "Hats are about a sense of occasion. The most important thing to consider when you are choosing a hat is: where are you going to wear it?"
If the occasion is the Dubai World Cup, just make sure your hat is utterly spectacular. You'd be mad not to.