"Nobody has yet figured out a good enough hat for God," observed Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers.

With all due respect, what has happened to the rest of us? There was a time within memory when no gentleman or lady dreamed of going out without putting on a hat. Hatters and milliners were sprinkled through every shopping district, drycleaners routinely cleaned and blocked hats, every home had a hat rack, travelers carried along extra hats in hat boxes, and every respectable public establishment had a staffed hat-check room.

I am concerned here with male hats. Some blame the decline on the late President Kennedy who projected a youthful, exhuberant image by, among other things, going hatless. I don't blame him. I think he merely punctuated a sentence already nearly written.

Young men during the 1960s were in a rebellious mood, and refused to wear hats because their fathers wore them. By the 1970s, they were fathers and not wearing them.

The disappearance of open automobiles and a womb-like dependence on heated and cooled buildings and transportation have gradually ended the need for hats. Only e'lan and a disposition toward elegance remain as reasons for wearing them.

But there are rumors that hats are slowly coming back, for nostalgia, fun, whatever. Or so I hope.

Historically, hats have been either hard or soft. The legendary Stetson, an in-between named for originator John B. Stetson, hatted the frontier. The "wide-awake"--a soft-crowned, floppy-brimmed Stetson--was popular, but not as enduring during the same period.

English hatter John Bowler invented the hard-crowned, elegant hat that bears his name. Unaccountably, when it crossed the Atlantic it acquired the name of an English county, horse race or peer, and became the derby. When it crossed the South Atlantic and made its way to the altiplano of Bolivia, it became the status symbol of impoverished Indian women. To this day they will pay $80--the equivalent of a year's wages--for a prime imported Borsalino bowler.

During the 1880s the fedora, named for a popular French play, had a vogue and was part of a general trend toward more relaxed and informal male apparel. To remain formal while avoiding stiffness, bankers, statesmen and others gravitated toward the soft homburg, which made its way into the world from the German city of that name around the turn of the century.

Also, think for a moment of the French liberty cap--derived from the ancient Phrygian cap, symbol of civility and freedom--soft and brimless, with a crown that nods forward. Or a trim beret, to tame an unruly mop of hair, or hide the lack of.

When they do wear hats, some men make no seasonal distinction. A tropical import, the Panama, is a splendid change of pace for summer. True Panamas (and I cherish mine) are woven--some say, under water--of jipijapa leaves in Ecuador. However manufactured (until the mid-1800s, "manufactured" as applied to wearable items meant handmade), Panamas cool and shade the head on warm days.

What manufactured hats remain on male heads today are generally versions of the slouch or snap brim, most often of felt--the most ancient fabric--wool or straw.

Most traditional hats now are made by Resistol, a subsidiary of blue-jeans magnate Levi-Strauss, near Dallas, Tex. They have been at it since 1921. As the hat business ebbed, old-line makers--Dobbs, Knox, Churchill, Cavanagh--were acquired by Resistol, which at one time made them all.

Resistol turns out caps and tweed hats at a plant in Sundbury, Pa. Although Stetson's name has passed into the lexicon, his company was not as durable. It's now owned by the Stevens Hat Co., and Stetsons are made in Philadelphia.

One problem in buying hats is the short shrift they get from typical haberdashers, says Robert Posey, merchandising manager for Resistol. The hat department in a large store is almost self-service, buried at the rear of the establishment.

"There aren't many hatters to fit hats any more," laments Posey. "A customer tries one on. A clerk wanders over from another department, and the customer asks, 'How does it look?' The clerk always says, 'fine.' In the old days, a hatter would say, 'It's all right, but might I suggest this instead?' and then shape the hat to reflect the customer's whim and personality."

Because of the dearth of professional hatters, purchasing a hat requires some caution. It should fit snugly but not too tightly. I believe--without a shred of medical authority--that too tight a fit impedes the flow of blood to the brain, causing irrational thought at most, discomfort at least. A hat is best bought midway between haircuts, to surprise the head's natural covering at average bulk.

It's wise to take a companion along to judge a hat. But then you should follow your own instincts after looking in a three-way mirror. No matter what your friend says.

But my concern for hats goes beyond fashion, civility, e'lan.

Consider where the language would be without them. What would a candidate throw in the ring? What would he pass to collect campaign money? What trick would measure hockey prowess? What would distinguish the good guys from the bad in Westerns? What would people stick foolish notions in?

And what might happen to stories like this?

Legendary Yale English Prof. William Lyons Phelps was once asked what excited him more, discovering a student who truly understood Browning or watching a Yale halfback run 90 yards for a touchdown. After some consideration, Prof. Phelps acknowledged that both were truly exciting.

"But when I discover a student who truly understands Browning," he concluded, "I do not smash my hat."