The Style Arbiter: Pick, design, love your race hat

Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 7:26pm
Libby Callaway

Marsha Mason Hunt wears one of the hats she's lovingly customized with Steeplechase in mind.

While out on my “rounds” last week, scoping out the goods in clothing boutiques and chatting up their owners, the subject of hats kept coming up.

Last season’s wooly berets and the ubiquitous fedora weren’t part of the conversation: this time of year, everyone is talking about hats one can wear to the Iroquois Steeplechase next week or to this weekend’s Kentucky Derby.

When I dropped by Zelda on Thursday afternoon, I found owner Marsha Mason Hunt happily ensconced in the airy upstairs atelier of her Green Hills boutique, carefully spraying water on edges of delicate vintage straw hats to make them malleable enough to be bent into pleasing, face-flattering shapes.

Marsha doesn’t go to the races any more, but she does honor the local tradition of getting hatted up for the annual Percy Warner Park event each spring by lovingly customizing a dozen or so toppers from vintage materials to outfit some of her customers who do choose to go.

“Zelda shoppers like feminine, pretty, yummy hats,” she said. Indeed, the fruits of her labors are elegant but happy pastel-hued confections decorated with a cloud of tulle, the occasional loose silk rose petal caught in the net.

For years, Marsha has been the local source for authentic 1940s and 1950s era hats from old-school millinery stores in midtown Manhattan. But over the last few years, the often century-old businesses that stock the plain, unembellished hat bodies she builds on have closed.

The reasons for their demise are largely cultural: Few people wear hats on a regular basis anymore — something that makes finding the perfect handmade topper for Steeplechase that much more exciting.

“Until sometime in the 50s, most hats were custom made,” she said. “Back when I was a child, everybody went downtown to Loveman’s to have the milliner make them a hat that fit their head.”

Modern hats are made in one size — or maybe S, M and L, if you’re lucky — something that’s not ideal for those looking for proper fit.

“Hats are like shoes: they have to fit,” Marsha said. “And your head is just the size it is. It’s not going to change.

“A hat that’s too tight is a terrible thing,” she said. “But what’s even worse is one that’s too loose, because the least bit of breeze puffs up, and it will blow off, exposing your ‘hat hair.’ And that’s not good, because a hat is a commitment you make for the day. You don’t want to take it off and show you have ‘hat head’!”

Marsha custom sizes her hats to insure customers that they won’t fall off mid-race – something that’s extra-important, considering that many shoppers build their outfits around their hat.

“Our customer falls in love with the hat and then makes the outfit work around it,” she said. “We’re way past the ‘60s, when you had to have the purse and shoe and hat that all matched. Today a hat is primarily a style statement, with the added value of helping keep you out of the sun.”

Which reminds me, Steeplechasers: Be sure to wear sunscreen and good sunglasses under your fancy race day hat. And make sure to bring some extra moxy.

“Wearing a hat does take a little attitude,” Marsha said, with a smile.

Marsha Mason Hunt’s custom made hats run $175 to $225 at Zelda, 4100 Hillsboro Circle, 292-8045.

Doing it yourself is easier than it looks

Hats were also the focus of the week at Textile Fabrics, where the clever staff whipped up headwear confections by attaching ribbons, buttons, feathers and other fun findings from the upscale fabric store’s vast inventory to vintage straw and fabric hats.

Unfortunately, the hats on display at Textile aren’t for sale. But the kind folks behind the counter are glad to share ideas for redecorating your own old topper if you drop in.

Can’t make it over to Franklin Road before the races? No worries.

Here, Textile’s Joan Durand offers up some quick do-it-yourself hat fixes that will allow you to remake a hat without breaking the bank:

• Layer your trims. “Don’t think you can just put on a ribbon and make it work,” says Joan, a seamstress and fashion designer who also designs Textile’s window displays. “They key to a great looking hat is to have multiple layers. You want there to be a 3D element to it.”

• Mix textures. Tuck some feathers into a wide rhinestone trim or stick a flower under the edge of a coarser braided trim. “What you’re going for is impact,” Joan says.

• Use both high- and low-end notions. Joan’s favorite hat incorporates a fabric rosette and leaf-covered trim that goes for $15 a yard and a zippy metallic ribbon that’s just $3.99 a yard. “When you layer, not everything has to be top shelf,” she says.

• Explore the Dollar Store. One half of the two-for-one package of decorative birds that Joan got at her local discount store made it into the mix (the other was used in the Easter corsage she made herself). While she was there, Joan also picked up a plastic flyswatter embellished with a cute plastic daisy. “I’m going to take the daisy off and use it on something,” she explained.

• Build the hat; the frock will follow. “When you’re wearing a statement hat, you’re leading head-first,” she says. “Your hat is your centerpiece, so you should build your outfit around it.”

Textile Fabrics is located at 2717 Franklin Road, 297-5346.