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A hat does more for a man than keep his head warm. A hat boosts -- or sometimes busts -- his image and gives him character, whether he wants it or not.

People are talking about hats again, and it's not just because Dick Tracy and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev wear them. Hats add dash to this season's slouchy styles and soft fabrics.

This winter, what's a luxurious, spongy wool topcoat without a roguish fedora? Or, for that matter, a sporty duffel without a Tyrolean?

When shopping for a hat, proper fit is essential.

"The basic fit of the hat -- the width of the brim and the height of the crown -- should have what we in the hat industry call 'good balance,' " says Gary White, owner of The Custom Hatter, 1291 Broadway.

In other words, you don't want to look like a cone head.

"When you look in the mirror, you want to see a perfect square -- everything balanced out, according to your facial characteristics, the width of your cheekbones, the length of your face," says White, a former hat buyer at Peller & Mure and eight-year apprentice of a Boston-based master hatter.

And there are other considerations. Materials and workmanship should be examined, for example. Hats are either custom- or ready-made from wool felt or, if top quality, fur felt.

Color also is important. A man's hat should complement his topcoat, not his suit. It also should match his profession.

"A lawyer wouldn't want to wear something like a Mississippi gambler's hat. On the other hand, if you're a cowboy, you don't want to wear a lawyer's dress hat. You want to wear a Western hat," says White.

A man also can learn to enhance handsome features -- such as graying temples -- and conceal the bad -- facial wrinkles -- with a tip of his hat or a snap of the brim.

Styles vary greatly. Many hats are designed for dress -- others for sport. Some can go either way, depending on the trim.

A young man can make a fashion statement in a bowler. The derbylike hat originated in England and was worn by judges at polo matches.

The Tyrolean, which is modeled on the hats traditionally worn by Alpine yodelers, is the hat to wear with down or sheepskin coats during the winter months.

And the fedora is a dress hat that will complement most topcoats.

While hats have always been worn by some men, a number of factors do affect their popularity.

"Movies influence the hat industry a great deal. The Harrison Ford thing with 'Indiana Jones' a few years ago was a real shot in the arm for the hat industry," says White, who designed hats for such movies as "Dick Tracy" and the upcoming "Billy Bathgate" starring Dustin Hoffman as a Depression-era gangster.

"Actually, the best hat movie ever made was 'Guys and Dolls' with Frank Sinatra years ago. They did over 450 hats in different styles and colors, and nobody wore the same hat twice in that movie," says White, who also cleans and restores hats.

Whatever the style, all hats should be treated with care, experts advise.

"That means that you shouldn't just grab it and smash it onto your head with one hand as you run out the door, in the manner of an old-movie detective," writes men's wear designer Alan Flusser in the New York Times magazine.

His advice: "Place one hand on the brim in the front and the other in the back, which not only protects the fragile crown, but allows you to settle the hat properly."

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