February 25, 1991 12:00 PM

by Madeleine Ginsburg

Did you know that the expression “mad as a hatter” is based on a medical truth, since the fumes in hat workshops tended to cause nervousness? Or that 14th-century prostitutes were supposed to identify themselves by wearing red-and-white striped hoods?

These are two of the better factoids buried in this dry, scholarly book. Neither the occasionally glorious full-page color photos nor shots of such people as Bing Crosby and Princess Di (wearing hats, of course) manage to dispel the feeling that this book isn’t aimed at the fashion hoi polloi.

Maybe the problem is its British orientation. Ginsburg—once a curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum—dwells on British design and neglects other Europeans. She barely mentions Paris-trained Lily Daché, who designed chapeaux for everyone from Carmen Miranda to Marlene Dietrich. Ditto Elsa Schiaparelli, whose influence on fashion rivals Coco Chanel’s.

Ginsburg spends too much time on pre-20th-century hat history and on the style of the royals, then and now. She is also like an erudite but stodgy professor. With a lighter approach, Ginsburg might have avoided producing a coffee-table book only the most scholarly fashion historian could love. (Barron’s, $21.95)

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