CAPPING IT OFF Hats have catapulted into prominence for the health- and fashion-conscious


Q: My son is 9 years old, and I don't have any trouble persuading him to dress up for important occasions, but he always insists on wearing his favorite cap. To tell you the truth, I don't know if this is wrong or not.

A: In former days, a hat was one of the basic parts of an outfit. Like a shirt, a suit, or shoes, no man went out without wearing one. Now, in much the same way as he may wear sunglasses, a man chooses a hat more as a form of self-expression than as a wardrobe essential.

Ever since young Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye" displayed his rebellion against establishment ways by wearing a baseball cap turned around backward, boys -- of all ages -- have been wearing caps. Of course, not every grown-up wears his cap backward. Quite a few of today's role models, such as filmaker Spike Lee, come to mind.

Many men like the -- of a hat mixed with the nonchalance of a cap. And the public's awareness of harmful overexposure to the sun's rays has spurred a loyal audience for hats of all kinds, and the protection of peaked baseball caps in particular.

As far as hat etiquette is concerned, most of it seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. But for heaven's sake, if your little boy insists on wearing a baseball cap, teach him when it's appropriate to remove it: in a restaurant, in class, in a movie, indoors in general, and at an athletic event when the national anthem is being played. And then make sure that he does it!

Several years ago I read an anecdote in the New Yorker: A child was assigned to use the word "cap" in a sentence. He wrote, "Catfish Hunter wears a cap." His female teacher returned his paper with the comment, "You used 'cap' correctly, but it should be, 'A catfish hunter wears a cap.' "

Q: I work in the public relations business and move in circles where it is not uncommon for men to wear tailor-made clothes and pay well over $1,000 for a suit. I'm not about to spend that kind of money on a suit. Instead, I wear Hermes ties. I've been collecting them slowly for years. They used to be $60; now they're a lot more. They're beautiful, distinctive-looking ties that I can wear again and again. They always look good. People notice my tie; they don't notice that my suit is not on the same level.

A: One really beautiful item in an outfit is enough to call attention to your taste and good judgment. Hermes ties do have a singular look that is regularly noticed. If the tie is good-looking enough, the focus stays on it -- the eye never gets to the suit. Even in an off-the-rack suit, no one would think of you as anything but superbly dressed.

Men often buy less well-tailored clothes (translation: less expensive) because they think people will notice that they're wearing the same things over and over again. It doesn't work that way. As you have seen, people either remember that a man always looks terrific or he looks mediocre. Of course, if your suit were really of inferior quality (polyester, ill-fitting, etc.), that would also draw people's attention.

It is easy to look ordinary. Fortunately, some men choose not to. Forget quantity; concentrate on quality.

Even with an item as classic as a top-line tie, there is the potential that it will become dated. With today's wider ties, a much-too-narrow tie -- though beautiful -- would look better if widened to a more current dimension, say 3 1/2 or 3 3/4 inches.

To avoid a carbon-copy effect with your few suits, vary your accessories: For every suit, buy three different-color shirts, and two ties that coordinate with each shirt. You get six different looks for each suit. Obviously, these are far less expensive than buying additional suits.

Send your questions or comments to Lois Fenton, Today in Style, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Ms. Fenton welcomes questions about men's dress or grooming for use in this column but regrets she cannot answer mail personally.

Ms. Fenton, the author of "Dress for Excellence" (Rawson Associates, $19.95), conducts wardrobe seminars for Fortune 500 companies around the country.

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