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Elements of Style: Mad for hats

Elements of Style: Mad for hats

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All eyes were trained on Kate Middleton's dress when she stepped from the Rolls-Royce to walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey to marry Prince William last week.

The gown, designed by Sarah Burton of the Alexander McQueen fashion house, earned universal high marks from observers, who deemed it a "triumph" and "exquisite," flawlessly combining tradition and modern elegance.

But what about the other major fashion statements of the day? While Kate's dress was predictably classy, the spectacular, eye-catching hats (many designed by milliner Phillip Treacy) worn by the wedding guests ran the gamut from inspired to flamboyant to hideous. The colors! The feathers! The heights! And what was THAT on Princess Beatrice's head, anyway? Yikes.

Donning hats -- and fascinators (a decorative headpiece) -- for weddings is a tradition in Britain. In the U.S., not so much, though the royal wedding is likely to prompt a surge in wedding headgear. One bride I know has requested that all guests wear a hat to her June bridal shower (we're going for tea at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, so it's perfect) and she mulled pillbox hats for all her bridesmaids. After browsing Etsy -- which offers all sorts of feathery and veiled headgear -- she purchased a fascinator to wear to another friend's wedding.

Other than the beach or the ballpark, one is most likely to see Americans wearing hats at this weekend's Kentucky Derby, an African-American church or bonnet-style, on Easter.

Local milliner Renee Roeder Earley hopes the royal wedding raises the profile of hats, and that it sparks a trend across the pond. Though she'll have a few token hats available for sale on Gallery Night (Friday, May 6, from 5-9 p.m.) at the Earley Art studio at 1231 E. Wilson St., she will have a fully stocked booth at Saturday's Audubon Society Art Fair at Warner Park Community Center, 1625 Northport Drive, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

"I think it's great that (the British) are so into hats. They are way above and beyond us at this point," said Earley, who watched the wedding and then went online for a cap recap. "They're so used to seeing each other in hats, I think they're more daring."

Yet choosing the appropriate lid takes some thought.

"There's a fine line between just silly and sublime," she said. "A big bow could look really sophisticated or it could just look silly. A lot of people don't know the difference yet."

Earley reviewed the hats in this People magazine slideshow and gave us her professional opinion on the top toppers:

On Zara Phillips: The hat "is big but restrained. I like that tangle of raffia on the side."

On Princess Letizia: "I love her look! The hat is a lovely cloche shape, not many in that style. It's very pretty and flattering."

On Lady Frederick Windsor: "I'd wear this in a minute! Playfully off-center, clean and elegant."

On Miriam Gonzalez Duantez, wife of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg: "Awesome look! Great red flower, very strong statement. I love that it is a turban. She is daring but controlled, very cool."

My favorites were Letizia's and Miriam's -- both paired their gorgeous hats with beautiful outfits: Letizia in a lovely light pink dress that matched her cloche, and Miriam in a sassy yet subtle polka-dotted ensemble that complemented and accentuated the gorgeous red blossom.

The worst, according to Earley? Beatrice's, Princess Anne's purple hat with a giant flower and netting ("Ugh"), Queen Sofia ("I don't think it quite suits her, too bridesmaidy") and Lorna Brooking ("Ghastly").

And what of The Queen's choice? "I think she looks nice, a bit conservative, she has to be careful, but I think she enjoys her hats. She's getting gutzier with age. (My daughter) Olive says it looks like a cake."

"As you look through the hats it is so easy and fun to imagine what the people are like who are wearing them. They are such an extension of a person's personality, even more than clothes," Earley added.

Earley, whose business is called Hats-O-Fancy, said this year's designs will be a little more daring. Some will have flair like bows that can be removed, too, if the wearer wants something a bit more conservative, depending on the occasion. She also makes custom hats, and will have some bridal hats for sale on Saturday. See the accompanying photos for some examples of her current work.

"People are ready to be a little more adventurous," Earley said. "Most of the people are buying a practical hat that they can wear with anything.

"I think there are some people who are ready to think bolder."

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