The young are bringing hats back.

The trend started with baseball caps, lowliest of the low on the totem pole of fashion. Young people turned them backward for effect. They slid them sideways, tilting the visor for a flash of panache.

Celebs such as Britney Spears and J.Lo raised the bar, sporting poor-boy caps to top off an alluring pose. Teens and 20-somethings began following their lead. And trendy women in their 30s and 40s picked up on the trend.

Hat sales have climbed 5 to 15 percent every year since the mid-1980s, according to numbers collected by the New York-based Headwear Information Bureau. Last year, Americans spent $1.04 billion on hats, up from $992 million in 2002, says Casey Bush, founder and director of the bureau that represents the hat industry.

“Kids are wearing hats to express themselves,” she says. “They’re wearing them for the same reason older people do. They’re saying ‘Here I am!’ They don’t want to fade into the woodwork.”

Whether or not the youth-driven trend has yet engulfed the Midwest, now’s the time of year – Easter and spring – when hat sales always go up, hat sellers say.

Mushrooming numbers of Red Hat Society followers are boosting sales, too, of fancy flowered hats, handsome feathered hats and funky casual hats. For the Red Hatters, members of the international group for 50-plus women-who-lunch, almost any hat will do. Just as long as it’s red.

New converts pad the ranks of a small but faithful old guard of hat wearers: women who started wearing hats decades ago because their mothers did, and haven’t quit. And we can’t forget the rows of Baptist church women, who’ve long considered hats nearly as sacred as Sunday service itself.

Among the loyal, there are few worries about blending with the Easter crowd, salespeople say. But fear of calling attention to oneself can be a concern – especially for Midwesterners, even those who own hats.

“You’re sassy when you wear a hat,” says Kathleen Mazurs, co-owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics at Har Mar Mall in Roseville, Minn., which stocks a hefty supply of fashion and casual hats in a rainbow of colors – including red.

“If you’re gonna wear the hat, you’ve gotta have the attitude,” says Cyndy Shearen, her business partner.

“A lot of people come in just to try on hats,” says Mazurs, surrounded by racks of them priced from $20 to $80. “Some women say, ‘I don’t look good in hats.’ ” I tell them, ‘Anybody can look good in a hat. You just have to find the right one.’ “

Then she sets about trying to help them do that. Some women find hats they like but wonder if they can “carry off” the look, she says. Shearen and Mazurs encourage women to think of hats as they would any accessory – a crowning touch. “Every woman has her own taste and style,” Shearen says. It’s important women tune in to that, she adds.

For spring, color is hot. So are snappy fedoras, for men as well as women. Retro is in, epitomized in the close-fitting cloche, reminiscent of the 1920s flapper era. Those trendy styles join a wide variety on the racks – from casual poor boys, bucket hats and knitted head-huggers to feminine brimmed hats made of straw, cotton and such new-wave fabrics as crocheted paper.

But fashion isn’t hat shoppers’ only goal, salespeople say. Many women these days are looking for hats to protect their skin – and their hair color job – from the sun. Others are shopping for hats to take to “hat parties,” often hosted by friends for women undergoing chemotherapy.

Some creative customers tap their creativity by tacking pins or flowers on hats for added pizzazz, says Carla Anderson, clothing buyer for the Bibelot Shops in the Twin Cities.

“With the economy the way it is, I think there’s a trend toward buying accessories,” she says. “We’re trying to do more with what we have.”

The practicality of packable hats, priced from $10 to $48 at the Bibelot in St. Paul, Minn., is a draw for many shoppers, she says.

Still, for most women, settling on a hat just isn’t as clear-cut as picking out a pair of shoes. Margie Abrahamson, the store’s clothing supervisor, notices some shoppers’ indecision.

“I see a lot of people trying on a hat and wondering, ‘Is it right for me?’ ” she says.

It’s a good question for a potential buyer to consider. “A hat is a statement,” she says.

And more, hat sellers say. “Hats are an extension of personality,” says Bush of the Headwear Information Bureau. “Hats add an air of authority.”

Some hat experts blame John F. Kennedy for hats’ fall from popularity in the mid-20th century. He was the first U.S. president to go hatless to his inauguration. Casey Bush blames the beehive hairdo. “When the beehive came in, who could put a hat on that?” she asks.

They didn’t know they were giving up a good bet to catch a man’s eye, she says. “Most women don’t know how much men like hats.”

Katie Casbohm of Fridley, Minn., while shopping for a hat with her husband at Merle Norman Cosmetics recently says she’s among women who knows. “Men think hats are sexy,” she says.

Her husband, Bill, adds his say: “Sexier than a low-cut dress.”


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