Louise Davis of Knoxville loved wearing hats and owned about 50 when she died in 2002. Because her daughter, Sarah Sumpter, wasn't a hat enthusiast, she let her five aunts divvy up her mother's collection.
So why is Mrs. Sumpter sitting in Homewood's Carrone Baptist Church this Easter morning wearing a brand-new shiny silver hat that perfectly complements her mauve, silver-threaded St. John suit and silver Jimmy Choo strappy heels?
Because she now understands what a difference a hat makes.
"She would smile ear to ear" if Davis could see her daughter today, she says. "She would say, 'You finally get it!' "
Easter unofficially ushers in the spring season for headwear, with numerous hat-friendly occasions ranging from Mother's Day and the Kentucky Derby to local events such as the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's annual Spring Hat Luncheon, scheduled for May 4. Mrs. Sumpter, of Schenley Heights, is among countless women -- and quite a few men -- who are part of what some see as a resurgence in the popularity of hats.
Up through the 1960s, hats were as basic to Americans' wardrobes as shirts and shoes. Their popularity began to steadily wane, starting in the 1970s, and the casualization of dress in recent decades has continued their decline.
Now hats are coming back, and not just on special occasions. One reason may be the danger of sun exposure. Another big factor is increased hat-wearing by celebrities, which has fueled interest particularly among younger people. Kate Middleton, the pretty and fashionable 31-year-old Duchess of Cambridge, frequently wears hats and has contributed to the popularity of banded hair ornamentations called fascinators.
Manufacturers are serving up headwear that has "a classic feel with a modern twist," says Kim Coppola, owner of the Downtown accessories boutique Serendipity. She says Mrs. Sumpter and others have come into the store she operates with her husband, Peter, to check out the half-dozen brands of new spring and summer hats in stock. Rich colors, black and white, animal prints, vintage florals, and turban styles are big trends this season, she says, adding that about 30 percent of headwear sales are for men.
There seems to be an increasing sentiment among men and women that hats project "a little sophistication, a little confidence," Mrs. Coppola says.
Leah Thomas shares that observation. Although she recently closed A Woman's Touch at Monroeville Mall, she's preparing to open two new storefronts in Swissvale and East Liberty. Meanwhile, customers like Mrs. Sumpter have been seeking her out at social events and at her North Braddock home in search of the right hat.
"A hat adds class to any outfit, a little extra something," says Ms. Thomas, who notes that she doesn't just sell hats -- she enjoys wearing them, too.
After seeing some of Ms. Thomas' spring styles at a recent social event in Green Tree, Mrs. Sumpter asked her to order some in silver from suppliers. On Thursday, Mrs. Sumpter chose a straw hat by Devine Apparel to wear with her Easter ensemble.
Mrs. Sumpter, a retired principal in Pittsburgh schools, learned how to sew in junior high school and even made her own wedding gown and bridesmaid dresses. But her affinity for hats came late in life. She now owns about a dozen hats, mainly warm-weather styles.
"Now I see why my mother valued hats so much," she says, adding: "I was young back then -- I didn't want to mess up my hair."
"When you're younger and people are telling you that your hair is your crowning glory ... you couldn't go out without your hair being done," she says.
"As you mature, you feel less and less about 'I have to showcase my hair,' and a hat can be that crowning glory."
LaMont Jones is a former fashion editor for the Post-Gazette. Contact: email@example.com. First Published March 31, 2013 4:00 AM