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Hats on for the races


Women wear colorful hats like these, on display at The Hat Shop in SoHo, to Triple Crown races and to Saratoga, in upstate New York. (Elizabeth McGarr)


Linda Pagan, who owns The Hat Shop in SoHo, designed this hat for a woman attending the 2007 Kentucky Derby. (Elizabeth McGarr)


Ashanti with Anne Sawyer, who designed the singer's hat, at the 2006 Kentucky Derby. (Trevor Booker)


Christine Moore, who owns Christine A. Moore Millinery in New York City, models one of the hats she designed. (Elizabeth McGarr)


Crystal Little, who works at Christine A. Moore Millinery, measures fabric she will use to trim a hat. (Elizabeth McGarr)

Angie Schultz names every hat she designs. She calls her business Attitudes by Angie, and from her studio in Prospect, Ky., she uses ribbons, feathers and flowers to make hats with names like “Winner Take All,” “Hot to Trot” and “Believe.”

Schultz gears most of her designs toward the premier hat event in the country, the Kentucky Derby, to be run this year on May 5. “It’s not the biggest hat that wins,” said Schultz, whose Derby hats cost about $500. “It’s the one that makes you feel good as a woman. It’s all about attitude.”

The Derby’s headgear pageantry will get a royal boost this year as the queen of hats, Queen Elizabeth II, will make her first visit to the race. Schultz, who also makes custom hats, fashioned a blue satin number to sell in honor of the occasion. She called it “Her Majesty.”

“The queen helps legitimize ladies’ head wear to begin with,” said Terry Grossman, 52, the manager at Mad Hatter’s Hat Shop in Lexington, Ky.

“When Americans see the queen, they think she’s old-fashioned,” said Christine Moore, owner of Christine A. Moore Millinery in New York, who has seen the queen's collection of hats. “It’s amazing.”

Customers can be very particular about hats, and designers like Linda Pagan, a former Wall Street broker, help them find a style that complements their outfits and flatters their body types. For example, Pagan, who owns The Hat Shop in Manhattan, recommends that petite women wear hats with small brims that turn up.

“The purpose of a hat is to focus people on your face and your eyes,” said Pagan, whose custom-designed Kentucky Derby hats usually sell for $250 to $400. “It’s all about proportion and balance.”

At the Derby, though, anything goes. Kirsten Johnson, who owns Kesmarc, an equine rehabilitation center outside Lexington, is going with peacock feathers on her hat this year. “At the Derby, it’s all over the top,” she said. “It’s not a Sunday bonnet.”

Since the hats cost hundreds of dollars, it’s common for repeat Derby-goers to retrim an old hat. “I was able to change a few feathers and make an old hat a new hat,” said Stacy Mitchell, 40, who owns Briland Farm in Kentucky, where she and her husband breed horses.

Anne Sawyer has designed multiple hats for Mitchell. Sawyer said she and her staff work 16 to 20 hours a day the week of the Kentucky Derby to fill the late orders that arrive from around the country.

In 2006, Sawyer designed Derby hats for singer Ashanti, who went for an avant-garde look (a wide-brimmed hat with a dinner plate-size white flower and multicolored feathers), and tennis player Serena Williams, who opted for a more traditional style (a black floppy hat with feathers on one side).

Sawyer says she has had a hat in the winner’s circle--on an owner’s, jockey’s or trainer’s wife--at each of the four previous Derbies.

Sawyer is able to cater to the jet-set crowd because she is based in Lexington, where many of the horse farms are located. She said she has customers who race horses in Dubai, Paris and Italy. Her hats mostly cost $400 to $500 but can cost more than $1,000. One of her cocktail hats, with silk roses and two-foot-long curled osprey feathers, costs $1,125.

Custom-made hats were very popular in America until the late 1950s and early '60s. Then, increasing numbers of Americans moved from cities to the suburbs and began driving cars instead of taking public transportation, Pagan told a group of high school marketing students who visited her shop in April. Milliners weren’t making money from new orders, so they began manufacturing hats to fit the average man or woman’s head.

“It was ‘one size fits none,’” Pagan said. That’s why she believes it is important to custom order hats to fit each client’s head.

Moore includes a drawstring feature in case the wearer wants the hat to fit more snugly.

While wearing a hat at the races is mainly a ladies’ game, some men buy hats for the big day. Actor Chris Tucker wore a white fedora with a simple multicolored band around it to the Derby in 2006. Men sitting in the Royal Enclosure at England’s ultimate horseracing event, Royal Ascot, must wear top hats. Women who sit in the exclusive area must also wear hats.

"It is hard for someone who has not been to a big race "to realize how important the hat is,” said Raquel Koff, 49, whose hat shop Rodeo Drive is in Louisville. “The hat makes a statement.”