"Hats Off! A Salute to African Headwear," which opened over the weekend at the National Museum of African Art, reminds the Chronicler that the honorable and stylish practice of wearing hats has waned for the past few decades in Washington.

But in Africa, exhibition curator Andrea Nicolls said, men and women "have viewed the head as a source of individual and collective identity, power, intelligence and ability." Their hats represent the creativity of a people.

Those worn by the Wee of Liberia and Ivory Coast are of plant fiber coiled to make a round base and rectangular form. The Wee are champion cultivators, leading cooperative groups of young men who clear and till farmland. Warriors defend the title of champion cultivator when their fathers are no longer able. A basketry hat decorated with raffia tufts was collected and given to the museum by its founder, Warren Robbins.

Male dancers in Cameroon's Grassfields region wear elegant mesh caps embellished with African gray parrot feathers. Robbins also gave the museum one of these hats, which can be stored by turning them inside out. Also from Cameroon's Bamum kingdom is a fine-knit hat of cotton, wood and dyes that belonged to a king or other titled male.

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo use leopard claws, dyes, plant fibers, cotton, and palm, pineapple and banana leaves to decorate caps. The one exhibited, made in a spiral with wrapped and looped threads tightly woven into geometric designs, is circa 1890.

Men of the Pende people of the Congo wear everyday wigs or mukotte made from plant fibers, brass tacks, hair, clay, oil, copper nails, cowrie shells, beads and leather. Ceremonial wigs include parrot feathers.

The botolo of the Congo's Ekonda people have several brims projecting from a tall, cylindrical base, with copper and brass disks affixed with wire and fiber and sometimes coated with oiled camwood powder. The nkumu (chief) wears the hat on all public occasions. At his death, the botolo is handed down to his successor.

Instead of wedding rings, the Zulu women of South Africa's Misiinga District in Natal wear hats with a circular basketry frame. Congo's Ngombe people boast their power and authority by wearing hats made from pangolin hides, whose armorlike scales protect the mammal.

Compare these with Washington's too often bare heads. I begin to think that Dr. Seuss's Cat is the only other hat wearer. Not long ago, the Chronicler was one of only three hatted heads at the most magnificent wedding in Washington's most gilded and gorgeous ballroom.

My mother would never have allowed me to go to church without a properly covered head. Certainly, no female of any age would ever think of going out in the hot South Georgia sun without a broad-brim. In the two years we lived in Belize, all women--either to the heat born or among the British Commonwealth's officials--wore hats. The local women also added color and beauty to the streets by shielding themselves with parasols. The outlanders, including Americans who had not as much sense, paid for their hours in the sun. One whom I saw again 20 years later had skin turned dark leather.

The Chronicler would hate to see hats totally go the way of gloves, once worn by every woman stepping out. A trip to see the 14 fragile and rarely shown hats and headdresses--all from the museum's permanent collection--with expert and fascinating captions by Nicolls, might spur right-thinking Washingtonians into putting on their hats again.

"Hats Off! A Salute to African Headwear" continues through Dec. 26 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. Call 202-357-4600 for hours.

CAPTION: Hats of the Lega people, above and left, and a Ngombe headdress, on display at the African Art Museum.