Most recent update: 30th April 2013
The top hat supposedly first appeared in 1797 on the streets of London. A story goes that an English hatter, a Mr. Hetherington, literally caused a riot on the street and was fined a tidy sum of £500 for disturbing the peace for wearing a hat that he invented (i.e. a topper)! This has since been proven as a myth and the person that really invented the top hat was actually a Frenchman. George Dunnage (a master hatter from Middlesex) is credited to have introduced the hat to Britain around 1793. Regardless of its origins, the top hat had gained popularity and by the Regency Period, it was de rigueur for everyday wear for the English gentleman (who would eventually be the only ones in the world who would still wear and value the hat long after all other foreigners have abandoned its use, even for formal dress that required it). Indeed, a gentleman would risk being spat at in the street if he did not wear a hat in the past!
How times have changed. Now, you would find it difficult to see anyone wearing a hat these days as the continuous de-formalisation of dress and manners slowly creep in. The slobbiness has set in and in due course, T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops would be considered too formal for business wear as we let it all hang loose and adopt the ‘not boovered’ attitude… But I digress.
The only places where top hats can be worn are few and far between. It is restricted to the most formal dress codes of the land. You will need it at Royal Ascot, investitures, weddings, balls, galas, operas and any formal event that demands morning dress or white tie. Whatever you may wear with a topper, an inferior one would definitely make you look like you’re in a costume. Indeed, inferior toppers can be spotted from a mile away. Plus, you must wear the right kind of topper that is appropriate to your dress and occasion otherwise it will definitely be costume!
Here I put forward a guide to sourcing, buying and wearing a topper. Do not ‘panic buy’ a topper (like they did in an episode of the British version of The Apprentice where they headed to the most expensive place possible); do your research, wade through all that is available and purchase wisely. You could get a bargain easily if you know how.
Types of top hats
Contrary to popular belief, not all toppers come in one single style. There are around six different types and you must not wear some at events that are not appropriate for the topper in question! The types are:
- Black silk/fur melusine top hat
- Grey silk/fur felt/melusine top hat
- Black cloth/silk opera hat
- Black silk/fur melusine top hat with mourning band
- Black silk/fur melusine riding top hat
- Black silk/fur melusine livery top hat
- Black wool felt mourning top hat
There are, of course, other types but these are the most common. Let us examine their usage and suitability.
The black silk/fur melusine top hat is the most common and is suitable for many events and dress. The crown height is typically 5 1/2 to 6 1/4″ and can come in a variety of different crown shapes (ideally, one should get one with a crown shape and height to suit one’s face and body). The most typical is the semi-bell shape but there are others such as ‘stove pipe’ (where the sides are completely straight and the crown is taller than 6 1/2″), ‘chimney’ (where the sides taper in slightly at the top), etc. The topper can come in a variety of weights depending on use. The ones worn today are typically ‘town weight’ ones which is made of a single layer of goss for the shell of the crown so is very light.
The grey silk/fur felt/melusine top hat used to be made of silk plush but you will not find this so easily since they stopped making silk ones since WWII. They are now made from normal fur felt. This topper is only really suitable for Royal Ascot and the races during the summer months though people nowadays wear it to weddings or any other event. In the past, many kept theirs with Lock’s so that it will not be worn when ‘out of season.’ It is often known as a ’drab shell’ top hat or a ‘white hat’. Instead of a silk grosgrain hatband, there could be a band of black boxcloth (can also be found on black silk toppers as well) which is known as a ‘mourning band’. Never wear this hat with evening wear, formal Town (i.e. London) events or to funerals.
The black cloth/silk opera hat is a collapsible version of the topper that was invented by a French hatter called Antoine Gibus. It can be made of wool merino cloth, satin or (the better) grosgrain. These are still being made. They should only be worn with white tie and/or to the opera (hence the name). Never wear this during the day.
The black silk/fur melusine top hat with full mourning band, as the name suggests, should only be worn at funerals. Instead of a 2″ black silk grosgrain riband, the topper is wrapped around with a cloth band of around 3-5″ wide and secured using a line of tiny silk buttons. This is to cover much of the shiny silk surface of the crown. The wider the band the more important the person mourned for. Another way of indicating mourning is to have a long length of wide silk crêpe (with un-hemmed edges) tied around the lower sides of the crown with the excess length hanging off behind. These are called weepers or mourning veils and should only be worn by the chief mourner or funeral announcer of the funeral party (though these days they are mostly worn by funeral directors). Abraham Lincoln famously had a 4″ silk grosgrain mourning band permanently installed on his topper to mourn his son.
The black silk/fur melusine riding top hat is just like a normal silk topper except the crown is lower at around 4 1/4″ high. This is to avoid branches knocking the hat off when riding a horse. Unless you do dressage or regularly go riding, don’t make the mistake of buying one. Typically, some of these toppers are made in ‘country’ or ‘hunting weight’ which means they are heavier and stronger than your average topper.
The black silk/fur melusine livery top hat is basically like a normal topper but in addition has some gold or silver braiding/lace, brim binding and/or hatband. As the name suggests, it should only be worn by doorman and servants as part of their livery which often is trimmed with gold lace itself so the hat matches.
The black wool felt mourning top hat is basically that; a top hat worn by funeral directors, undertakers and mourners at a funeral who can’t afford a silk/fur melusine hat with a proper mourning band. Because it is made of wool, there is no shine to it thus indicating mourning. A lot of inferior toppers sold on the high street solely for the fashionable and trendy are of this type. The hat is felt-like and soft unlike the hard shell varieties above. One of the dead give-aways is to look at the brim binding which is simply machine sewn on and bent upwards like a homburg; a time saving method (see below example). It is also the choice for costume/fancy dress and Goths given its relative cheapness. There is also difference in quality where you get them from. From Christys’ they hat at least look similar to their fur melusine ones and these are the hats of choice for funerals, etc. The rest from the high street are only suitable for the vulgar use: i.e. fancy dress, fashionistas, etc. Because of its relative cheapness and large dimensions, wool felt is also the material of choice for making toppers with extravagant and ridiculous shapes and sizes, most notably the late Sebastian Horsley’s infamous toppers, that would be impossible to make with the limited dimensions of fur melusine plush. Also, wool felt is simply blocked using an industrial press whilst other types require a shell to be blocked by hand before covering with the outer material thus making it less expensive and time consuming to make, hence the cheapness of it all.
Another type that must be mentioned is the non-collapsible shiny fabric/silk shell hat. They are a pale imitation of a collapsible topper and look rather ugly with sides all straight, side seams, flat brim and a rounded crown edge amongst other things. It is only appropriate for fancy dress or cheapskate magicians. These should be avoided at all costs…
One thing also to avoid is getting a milliner to do a hatmaker’s job. David Beckham recently decided to go down this route for the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton and commissioned the milliner Philip Treacy to make a top hat. The shape of the crown was at least traditional but the construction and other details were below par and it ended up looking like a fancy dress hat (it even had some sort of mourning band for the hatband similar to President Lincoln’s and so entirely inappropriate for a wedding anyway). It would most be suitable for a lady but for a man it is most definitely not (this point is made stronger by the fact that he never once wore it on top of his head so it became a mere fashion accessory with no practical use; I will not comment about how he wore his OBE…)
Notes on finding and purchasing a top hat
We are only going to concentrate on the first three types since the others are sort of ‘specialist toppers’ which we civilians are unlikely to wear or we should not bother getting (or are more or less already within the remits of the first three categories). These can be obtained via the same route as the first three anyway so no need to discuss them further.
There are a variety of sources where you can get these toppers. Knowing where can save you a few (hundred) bob…
NB: Americans often use the term ‘beaver hat’ in a very vague and wide ranging sense, sometimes referring to actual top hats made of real beaver fur felt or to silk or fur melusine ones! Be sure what it really is to avoid costly mistakes! Also, some toppers are made from rayon silk plush though this is very, very rare (the appearance is slightly greasy and blotchy like waxed hair).
Silk plush top hat
Let’s start on the silk plush topper (also known as a ‘high silk’). Firstly, these are (allegedly) no longer made because the last looms to make the silk plush was destroyed in 1947 and secondly, they stopped making silk toppers in 1959 when the silk plush ran out. Therefore, you can only obtain these vintage or second-hand.
For an explanation of how silk hats were made, please read my blog on this subject: Method of Making Top Hats.
There are several methods which you could obtain it: inherited, bought re-furbish and bought second-hand and then re-furbished if necessary.
If you inherited your topper, the chances are that it may not fit you. You may need to re-conform it to your head shape (that is, if the topper in question is in your hat size, otherwise it is not worth the hassle). To do this you must visit a hatter who will use the conformateur on your head to make a small scale template of your head on a piece of card then transfer it onto a formillion or conform block (these items themselves are very rare and go for c. £1000-3000 at auctions), heat the hat on a special heater to soften the shellac and mould the topper into your head shape. Regardless of how you obtain your silk topper, it needs to be reconformed if it doesn’t fit you well.
Buying a re-furbished topper from a hatter is another way. The hatter would have repaired any damage and reconditioned the silk so it looks as good as new. However, if you do not have a couple of hundred pounds to spare, this is likely to be an expensive option given the next option available. The cost ranges from £500-2000+ from the main hatters of the realm. The larger the hat size, the greater it is going to cost you as large toppers are rare given that peoples’ heads were smaller in ye olde days than now. Indeed, this maybe your only option if your hat size is larger than 7 1/4. Sizes over 7 3/4 are rare and expensive.
If you could indeed try on the hat in person, there is one way of telling if it is the correct size. Firstly, you should wear it correctly; that being dead straight and not tilted to the side or towards the back. It should slip comfortably on without you having to force it down on your head too much. The hat should sit around an inch above the eye brows. Another way is to place your finger/s between your ear and the brim of the hat at the side of your head. If there is one finger’s worth of space then the hat is the right size. If you can easily place two fingers in that space then the hat is too large. If you have difficulty inserting a finger at all or the brim actually touches the ears then that hat is too big. Of course, you may feel pressure points but these maybe due to the hat shape being different to your head shape and this can be sorted out with a conformateur.
Buying second hand can be surprisingly successful if you know where to look. You could get one in good wearable condition for £30-50! You first port of call is eBay where toppers crop up in a continuous line of auctions. Search for words like ‘silk top hat’, ‘vintage top hat’, ‘antique top hat’, etc and various combinations thereof. You will find around 20-50 listings. Ignore all the buy-it-now listings for now and concentrate on the auctions, especially those with very low starting bids. The best time not to buy on eBay is the few months leading to Royal Ascot as the prices would be severely inflated due to demand. You should wait until well after, especially winter time when there is no real demand for them. However, for the large hat sizes, you would probably only find buy-it-now listings as the seller (sensibly) does not wish to part with these for nothing. Sometimes, you can get a large hat for a significantly lower price if there is damage or flaws to it. If you go for such hats you must weight up the cost of restoring the hat.
Of course, before you bid or buy you must check the photos of the hat in question very carefully. You should ask yourself some questions:
- What is the hat size?
- What is the condition of the silk plush?
- Is there any wear to the edge of the crown?
- Are there any dents to the crown?
- Is the underbrim merino in good condition?
- Is the leather sweatband intact?
- What is the condition of the silk hatband and silk brim binding?
- Is the silk lining in good condition?
- Who, when and where was the hat made?
- Does it come with a hat box?
The first few questions are important. The hat size is vital as the topper must fit otherwise you’re buying a white elephant. Sometimes, sellers are vague as to the size. Ask them to measure the inner circumference of the sweatband to make sure it is in your hat size. Note that most (if not all) toppers made in Europe go by English hat sizes. It is better if the hat is one size too big rather than one size too small as with a bigger size, there is room for adjustments with the conformateur and cork could be inserted into the sweatband to fit. A hat too small cannot be stretched or altered to a bigger size. This is because the crown of a top hat is made with a sheet of goss with the ends joined together to form a cylinder with a brim made up of several layers of goss for it to be as stiff as plywood stuck on so the size is fixed. Stretching it by force will damage the overall structure of the hat and would cause the brim to buckle or even the hat to break.
The next most important thing is the condition of the silk plush. Any rips or tears are going to be costly to repair. The edge of the crown is where a lot of wear can happen as this is the place where, through improper strorage, the silk can be rubbed and worn off. A good topper will have little, if any, wear to the crown edge.
Another common problem is with dents to the crown due to improper storage or handling. Normally, unless you actually handle the hat yourself, dents are not evident in photos unless the hat is well polished so the surface is flat enough and the hat is photographed with the flash on. Sometimes, the dents are minor and could be gotten away with if you just dry polish it so the nap does not go completely flat against the surface thus disguising the flaws. However, if there is extensive denting then the hat requires reblocking to remove them. To do this, the sweatband is turned out (or removed completely), the slip lining is removed, the opposing side where the dent is is then wetted with a sponge, the hat placed on a half-block secured onto a potance frame where an iron is applied on the outside. The heat and moisture causes the shellac to soften and be ironed flat against the half-block removing the dent in the process.
The underbrim is faced with what is called ‘merino’. It is wool twill. This part is where a lot of moth damage could occur and if there is it would need refacing if the damage is extensive. Another common problem is discolouration but this can easily be corrected with a bit of careful dye application and is not as important as moth damage which creates unsightly and noticeable marks. Refacing the underbrim will also require the brim binding to be replaced (as the silk ribbon would be damaged during the process of removal) and sweatband maybe affected so make sure you are willing to sacrifice those if you need to get it refaced.
If the leather sweatband is intact then that is a bonus. Replacing the sweatband is relatively cheap. If a few stitches are loose then that can easily be repaired. A good sweatband is a must as it is the only thing protecting the hat from sweat. A badly installed sweatband would enable sweat to seep onto the shell which soaks it up and weakens the shellac and hat. Also, if the sweatband requires replacing, make sure the leather used is the same thickness as the original as a thicker sweatband can cause the size of the hat to shrink a little. A hat slightly too large for your head can have the size reduced slightly by either installing a thicker sweatband or having the original sweatband ‘drummed’. Another way would be to stick foam (or better, cork) behind the sweatband but this is only a temporary measure and if the hat is too big it would not sit well and be likely to slip off.
The topper’s upperbrim is most often of the same silk plush as on the crown but sometimes it can be of grosgrain silk (sometimes referred to as a ‘petersham brim’.) This itself is not bad but ideally, the brim should be silk plush which looks far better.
The silk hatband and brim binding also can be replaced if damaged. Sometimes the silk lining is stained but since this doesn’t affect the appearance outside of the hat then it is not important.
Another important point to look at is the brim curl. The correct/proper brim curl is that the fore and aft of the brim should only be curled very tightly, almost like the edge is folded in on itself with 1/8″ turning flat against the upperbrim, but the sides should be curled inwards almost 180 degrees with a wide turning. This is known as the d’Orsay curl, named after Count d’Orsay, a French dandy, and is extensively used for toppers and bowlers alike. The silk binding should be less on top and more on the underside so the fore and aft shows only a piping width of silk binding on the top but the sides show a wide section of ribbon as the underside is turned up to expose most of the ribbon (but note that some hatmakers do it slightly differently). This must all be hand-stitched. Inferior silk toppers are simply machine stitched so you would see the machine stitches clearly and are simply bent upwards without a sweeping curl. For a comparison, look at the brim of the silk topper in the second photo above and compare it with the wool one (8th from above). If the brim binding is to be replaced, make sure it is replaced with pure silk grosgrain/petersham ribbon as rayon does not look ‘right’ as it is thicker and more stiff and the light does not reflect on it well. If the hatter in question could not source silk ribbon then you should inform them that Mokuba (a Japanese ribbon maker with outlets in New York, Paris, Toronto and Tokyo, etc) have black pure silk grosgrain ribbon in various widths that are exactly the same as the silk grosgrain ribbons of yore. The part number is 20000 and it is called, by them, silk taffeta ribbon, colour no. 3. For a detailed explanation of how the brim binding is replaced, see this blog post by torontotophats:
It is said that good silk toppers are marked in the lining with the words ‘extra quality’ so if it is then that is a bonus. Famous names to look for are Herbert Johnson, Lincoln Bennett, James Lock & Co., Henry Heath and Patey. However, don’t be confused by brand names and labels; you are looking for a good hat that fits and not a flawed hat with a name on it.
And do not be trapped by provenance; a topper worn by a former Prime Minister or a King may sound magnificent but if it doesn’t fit you or is battered then it is not really worth (the few hundred/thousand more pounds it adds to the final price plus insurance) buying it to look at, although if it fits, is in good condition and you have the money, there is no reason why not in order to save it being put ‘in captivity’ by a collector who wouldn’t care much to wear it as it was intended for.
Other points to consider are the height and shape of the crown but this is really personal in preference. Note that there are two ‘weights’ for toppers: town weight and country (or hunting) weight. The former is very light and is made of a single sheet of goss covered with silk plush. The latter is quite heavy and is made up of many layers of goss covered with silk plush. Sometimes, hunting toppers have a piece at the back that cups the back of the skull and/or have a quilted sweatband with a drawstring tape so the topper stays more securely on the head.
Finally, if it has a hat box, check to see its condition as sometimes you may have to discard it as it is too damaged to keep a topper in. A good leather top hat bucket with key and strap intact would be a real score. Note that a new leather bucket would cost you £1200+ so you must really get a vintage one instead!
In regards to top hat boxes, getting a top hat bucket would be best but if you cannot afford one or cannot source a good vintage one (with a working lock and key) then you can opt for an ordinary modern one. There are several types including an average card hat box. Lock’s sell a sturdy top hat box made of stiff cardboard (stiffer than their normal hat boxes) for those on a budget. Whilst these are good for storage, they are not necessary good for heavy travel purposes. Patey’s sell a good hat case specifically for toppers. This not the traditional bucket or the card hat box but a good strong case. It is like a suitcase made of wood and leather with combination lock. The leather case is perfect for heavy transportation of your topper (especially aboard) as it is a solid square case. Make sure that the hat box/case you choose does not allow the topper to move about during transportation. Also remember to protect the crown from rubbing or touching the sides of the box but placing a sheet of high quality packing paper over it which would avoid spoiling the plush. And make sure that the topper actually fits in the case as I have noticed that high crown (6 1/4″) toppers can only just fit the Patey case with the crown pressed against the inner flap (they could do with installing the flap 1/4″ higher to give the crown some clearance space) but as far as I have experienced, the crown is fine as long as you do not insert bulky material above the compartment or pocket which could damage the crown if you force the lid down. Another way would be to remove the flap altogether and not use the pocket for anything then there is plenty of space.
If you’re not going to travel much with your topper and don’t want to invest in a hat box then you could make a hat box yourself using an old cardboard box. Make sure it is slightly larger than the hat, fashion a lid, make four triangular ‘brackets’ out of strips of the card and stick them to the sides of the box near the top so that the hat is suspended. You can add additional packing material such as bubble wrap (but don’t overdo it!) and loosely wrap the hat in a large silk scarf before placing inside the box (to avoid the plush rubbing on the packing material) followed by a layer of packing paper and the lid which is what you should do if you are going to send the hat through the post.
If the topper has ticked all (or most) of the right boxes then set yourself a limit and bid on it! Bear in mind whether you need some restoration work done to it after you received it. In regards to restoration work, there are several hatters that do this, most notably Ascot Top Hats, Lock & Co. and Patey’s. For a full refurbishment service at Patey’s it would cost you £250 or so which is reasonable but that service is for when the hat is literally falling apart and if you followed my advice you shouldn’t have bought such a topper in the first place! You should entrust renovations to English firms as they have the regular experience and expertise of silk topper renovation that American hatters do not (save maybe replacing the sweatband, etc). If you have a Lock hat then Lock’s might be able to do it for cheaper given that it is one of theirs.
Other good places to get a second-hand one are at charity shops or auctions. Go to ones in wealthier areas and you could grab one cheaply. Antique and vintage clothing fairs are also a good place where they crop up. The advantage here is that you can examine the goods in the flesh and try the hat on for fit. You must rely on your haggling skills to get a good price. It is also good to go to these places to actually handle a real silk hat so you know what one looks and feels like which would help you in future at selecting and scrutinising potential toppers that you wish to buy.
You may, of course, come across a silk plush topper in a colour other than black, such as grey or even brown. A very dark brown is known as ‘fly wings black’ and is almost black unless examined closely. These, of course, are extremely rare and even if they don’t fit you, it is worth getting them for the resale value alone! I have yet to find someone who possesses a grey silk hat but I know that Patey’s and Lock’s have an example each. Expect these to cost somewhere in the region of £2000…
There is another (possible) avenue of relief for those with large heads that cannot find a vintage silk plush topper cheap enough. Two top hat makers in The Netherlands claims to have access to what I assumed was old stock silk plush (but I have heard say that there are still one or two looms still weaving silk plush and it might be from one of these that he gets the silk plush from though it is odd that none of the main hatters of the realm seem to have caught wind of this potentially profitable commercial avenue and exploited it!) but I have since found out from them that it is new silk plush, or so they claim! They are Ton Meewuis and Mark Spoorenberg of the confusingly almost identically named Silk Top Hats and Silk Top Hat respectively. I have to warn you that I have yet to verify their claims as I have yet to examine the hats in question to know whether they are genuine silk plush but if it is real then there would finally be relief for those with large heads that can’t find/afford vintage silks in their size! If you have one of their hats, please drop me a line as I would really love to see them in the flesh.
I’ve also heard rumours of a hatmaker called Massimiliano Amicucci (who makes for films and theatre, recently making the toppers for the Top Hat production in the West End) making silk plush toppers (there is this intriguing video on YouTube and going by how the light reflects the tip of the hat, it is plush of some kind:
). Again, I have yet to confirm this as I haven’t looked into it properly yet.
Once you have your topper, you should brush the hat with a top hat brush and polish with a velvet pad. Do not use steam as that can damage the silk plush.
Fur melusine/felt top hat
If you can’t find a good silk topper (most likely because you have a very large hat size) then the next best thing is to get a fur melusine topper (‘melusine’ as in fur with a directional nap, not ‘felt’ which is flat like on normal hats such as trilbys, fedoras, bowlers and homburgs). These are available at quite affordable prices and are well made. The fur is made in a way that mimics the nap of the silk plush and can be polished to a certain degree. The colour is closer to Oxford grey than jet black given that the light reflects on it differently to silk. It also has a fuzzy look and feel to it. The first top hats were made with beaver fur felt before silk replaced it. Fur melusine hats are heavier than silk because the shell is of blocked wool felt covered with the fur plush, which was exactly how toppers were made before the invention of the goss-layering method.
All the hatters of the realm supply these in a range of prices. They are sold in two crown heights and the price is the same regardless of hat size. It is also a good investment if you wear a topper very often and would like a different texture topper for a change or you are going out in the country and do not wish to damage your precious silk topper.
The cheapest place to get a fur topper is Christys’ of London. They also sell the grey fur felt toppers for even cheaper. In my opinion, I would eschew the black mourning band and go for a narrow silk hatband with bow and brim binding of the same colour as the hat. This looks far more elegant than the current done-to-death set-up of light grey hat, dark grey brim binding and black wool band which looks ‘muddy’ in my honest opinion having three clashing colours. Also, mourning bands are so-called because originally they were for mourning (or maybe a reduced version of the proper wide ones) and it really seems illogical to even wear one at all with normal top hats but everyone has forgotten what and why it’s there in the first place and we are stuck with this set-up (no one will blame you for wearing a mourning band or think that you are in mourning now that the significance is lost but still, a silk band looks far better). It is also a solecism to have a grey topper, associated with races and fun-in-the-sun summery occasions, with a mourning band installed. I think it may be a cost cutting exercise more than anything else (making and installing a narrow wool mourning band is far easier, quicker and cheaper than making a grosgrain ribbon hatband with bow.)
For the traditional wide black wool felt mourning band on black toppers with a row of silk buttons at the side these are as rare as hen’s teeth and you could possibly get one of the hatmakers to make one for you. You’ll need to hand them your hat as these things can only be made bespoke as each hat is different in crown shape and the band needs to hug the crown with no lumps or folds:
If you do get one, make sure that you do not have the band permanently installed on the hat as it might leave a mark on the plush as well as attract moths. Take it off after use.
If you want something special and have the money you may wish to consider ordering a bespoke fur melusine or grey fur felt topper from Patey’s. You can specify the crown shape, height, finish, binding, etc as well as the weight. They can also make it the traditional way of layering goss over a hat block before covering with fur melusine, beaver or felt and then trimming and finishing. The shell would be very hard and stiff (and I imagine could be stood upon like original riding toppers).
Another source of bespoke fur melusine toppers is Ascot Top Hats who can do them in colours other than black. A good choice would be grey to mimic the original grey silk topper that was replaced by fur felt after the war.
Black cloth/silk opera hat
Black silk opera hats are still being made and can be obtained relatively easy (though the main hatters of the realm seem not to advertise them). Your first port of call is eBay, especially German eBay (which seems to have hundreds!), as there are a few vintage ones that crop up now and again. You can probably only get a grosgrain one this way as most modern opera hats are made using satin (sometimes using the inferior kind).
Check that there are no tears to the outside silk and the inside lining. Most opera hats have no leather sweatband so the inside can wear out very quickly.
A satin opera hat can be ordered from one of the hatters of the realm or bought from certain online shops. If you are taking the latter route make sure you do not inevitably order a ‘fancy dress’ looking one! Indeed, some modern ones look rather horrid even thought they are probably made correctly. Look at the shine of the satin. It should look like a highly polished silk plush top hat and not matt. Also, the brim curl and all the details I have outlined for silk plush hats has to be correct otherwise you might as well get a vintage one.
However, since you would probably be paying something in the same region as a normal fur melusine topper, it is probably not worth the money (unless you cannot find one in your size of course.)
A wool merino cloth opera hat (in black or midnight blue) is just as appropriate for white tie however you would probably never find one vintage as they are extremely rare as the silk versions are more popular. If you want one, it would probably have to be bespoken or you would have to be incredibly lucky on eBay, etc.
Ever since writing this article in 2009, I have noticed a sharp rise in silk top hat prices (as of 2011).
Any silk topper that is a size 7 or lower you can easily get for under £100 in fairly good condition. However, as you go up in size the prices go up steeply. A 7 1/8 can be had for under £150 as you may for a 7 1/4 for under £200 but at 7 3/8 the price shoots up to around £300+. The reason for such inflation is because the stocks of silk top hats for larger heads are running low and as the years roll by it becomes more difficult to get one any cheaper.
Therefore, my advice is that if you really want a silk topper, now is the time to invest in one because in a few years time the prices could go way beyond what they are currently now and you might never be able to get hold of one. If you are assembling your morning dress ensemble, the first priority is not the bodycoat, trousers or waistcoat, it is now the silk topper.
As for the condition, any will do, even if there are dents, etc. If the price is lowered because of the damage, it is best to get it now and save up to refurbish it than wait for one in good condition that could cost more than the damaged topper plus reconditioning fees. Recently, a 7 3/8 topper came up on eBay for £100 buy-it-now. There was damage to the plush, etc. The reconditioning charge would probably be around £195 + VAT through Patey’s. Was gone in just a day. Another in good condition was put up for £285 buy-it-now (down from £385). This is actually a good deal considering the current prices. Therefore, it is no longer the time to be picky. Even if there is damage, go for it if the price is good and judging on what the costs for reconditioning it in the future would be likely.
Currently, the price range for a silk topper ranges from £30 (for a small, battered, but sometimes decent if you’re lucky, one) up to £3000+ (for large sized/rare ones).
Hatters of the Realm and beyond
Here are a list of hatters that stock or make top hats. As I said, one should shop around and compare prices and get recommendations. Note that with some common-sense, you do not need to fork out a fortune for a topper. To all intents and purposes, since you can wear a black silk topper to any formal event bar one or two, it is best to focus you attention to obtaining such as you only really need one that will be suitable and appropriate for all. Thus, grey toppers and opera hats can be saved for a time when you have money to spare.
NB: this list is not exhaustive and the information is valid as from April 2013. Inclusion in this list does not mean I personally endorse any of these hatmakers/hatters. However I do try and list ones that sell decent and vintage toppers that can be worn in actual situations and not as mere costume. I have removed the prices as they would keep going up and I don’t want to keep updating all the time.
Sells fur melusine toppers in two heights as well as grey drab shell toppers. Renovation service and vintage silk toppers for sale. Can re-conform and repair hats.
Sells fur melusine and grey toppers.
Sells black fur melusine and grey felt toppers.
Sells Christys’ (and others) and refurnished vintage top hats. Can re-conform and restore hats. Since 2010, they can now make their own bespoke top hats out of fur plush/melusine in a variety of colours and other hats to order and have expanded their range to include opera hats and other novel ones.
Makes and sells bespoke fur and re-furbished vintage silk top hats. Renovation service available. Can re-conform and repair hats. Also sells a ’bomb-proof’ wooden leather case for toppers.
Basically, a sister site of Patey’s dealing specifically with silk hats. They also list their repair charges clearly.
Dutch hatter and hatmaker Ton Meewius. Sells various vintage silk and drab top hats from the continent. Can renovate hats. Also claims to make new silk toppers (TBC). Also stocks vintage top hat buckets.
Not to be confused with Silk Top Hats, this site is run by Mark Spoorenberg who was a hatmaker during the heydays of silk top hat making in the Netherlands and makes his hats under the name ‘Burton’ (again, do not confuse with the Burton, the famous suit manufacturer in England). He seems to be associated with Ton Meewuis but is independent. He makes new silk top hats (TBC) to order and in apparently any colour though I have yet to find out for how much. The style of his toppers seems markedly different from standard: he uses satin for the underbrim and no brim binding.
Specialist silk top hat dealer. Stocks two qualities of toppers: ones in perfect condition and ones that need some renovation or have slight flaws. Also has a renovation service.
Specialist silk top hat dealer. Also sells top hat buckets/boxes and has a renovation service.
Specialist top hat dealer who also sells other racing-themed paraphernalia.
Specialist top hat dealer. Can re-conform and repair hats.
Sells second hand vintage town and hunting weight silk and fur toppers. Was Field and Country Antiques but under new name and management since April 2013.
Sells renovated vintage toppers as well as modern fur melusine (from Christys’ I think). You must visit or call their London shop personally.
Here is a short glossary of terms which are mentioned above as well as additional useful terms one may come across. Note that it is not meant to be comprehensive and some terms are open to interpretation.
Airhole: a small hole in the centre of the tip of the crown with a gauze fitting to allow the heat from the head to escape in some top hats
Beaver fur/felt: the old form of plush used to cover top hats in the past but now mostly used to cover ceremonial hats, hence ‘beaver hat’; often used mistakenly by Americans to describe silk plush
Beaver hat: the term used for all hats (including top hats) made with a covering of beaver fur/felt in the past
Bell crown: a top hat crown shape; the width of the tip is wider than the base of the sides
Boater style top hat: a top hat with a straight crown of around 4″ tall with a flat brim
Bow: a decorative feature on the hatband or at the base of the seam of a sweatband
Brim: the part that extends out of the crown of a hat at all sides in one piece
Brim binding: the ribbon that binds around the edge of the brim
Brim block: an oval wooden block with a hole in the centre used to iron the brim on the crown of a hat
Brim curl: the degree and style of how the brim edge is curled inwards towards the crown of a hat
Cheesecloth: a loose-woven gauze like cotton fabric used in the process of making cheese but can also be used to make Goss
Chimney pot crown: a top hat crown like that of the Stovepipe style top hat but with slightly curved sides
Cloth: wool fabric
Coodle: a shellac based paste used in the process of making Goss
Conformateur: a device use in taking the head shape of an individual to create a scaled down pattern on card in order to reconform a hat
Conform block: see Formillion
Conform card: the paper template of one’s head shape scaled down
Country weight: a hat that is heavy, its shell made of many layers of goss
Crêpe: (also crape) a light woven fabric made of spun silk with a gauzy feel to it
Crown: the part of a hat that covers the skull of the head and does not include the brim
Crown edge: the sharp edge of the crown where the tip meets the sides
Cumberland style top hat: a top hat crown with sides that tapers towards the tip
Cupped back: a stiff construction attached to the back of a equestrian top hat that cups the back of the skull of the head in order for the hat to be more secure
Curling iron: a hat iron with a special groove used in the curling of the brim of a hat
Doff: to grip the brim of a hard hat (or crown of a soft hat) and lift it off the head a few inches as a gesture of greeting or acknowledgement
D’orsay style top hat: a typical top hat shape with a Full or Semi-bell crown and a sweeping brim curl
Drawstring: either a tape with a drawstring fitted to the sweatband to allow for a better fit on the head on riding hats or a decorative ribbon or cord installed on the sweatband
Drummed (sweatband): a sweatband that has been slightly shortened then re-sewn back onto the hat but with shorter stitches whilst stretching it to fit the bigger opening so the original hat size is reduced
Equestrian top hat: same as a Country weight top hat save it has a short crown of around 4″ and has a quilted sweatband and a drawstring and maybe a cupped back
Felt: a flat, almost fussy, fabric without a pile or directional nap; used as a shell of a grey top hat; or in the past as the shell of a silk top hat that is then covered in silk plush
Formillion: an adjustable block used in reconforming a hat
Full bell crown: as Bell (crown) but the degree of curving at the sides is greater
Fur: fur from animals used to make fur felt or plush for hats
Gibus: Antonie Gibus, the inventor of the collapsible top hat; also an alternative term for Opera hat
Goss: linen, cotton calico or cheesecloth that has been soaked in coodle and left to cure for a few months on a frame; used to make the shell of top hats; supposedly invented by Lincoln Bennett
Gossamer: see Goss
Grosgrain: ribbed silk
Half block: see also Reblocking; a wooden hat block covered in cloth that is one half of a full hat block that is mounted on a potance frame used in the process of blocking the crown of a hat to shape using a hat iron; comes in three shapes: full bell, semi-bell and straight
Hat block: a standard wooden block of the crown of a hat; a top hat block consists of several interlocking pieces
Hat iron: irons of various shapes and sizes used in the process of hat making, blocking and polishing
Hat maker: a person or company that makes hats from start to finish
Hatband: the often narrow ribbon encircling the crown at the base of the sides
Hatter: a person or company that sell and retails hats but may also finish or repair hats
Hatter’s Plush: pure silk plush, original made on Lyon and Metz, manufactured in several different pieces for each part of a top hat
Hard hat: a hat with a stiff shell that has little or no give that can only be manipulated once heat is applied
High silk: an alternative term for a silk plush top hat
Hunting weight: see Country weight
John Bull style top hat: same as for Yeoman Farmer style top hat
Linen: a fabric made by the fibres of the flax plant used in the making of Goss
Lining: several pieces of material inside the crown of a hat covering the shell; can be a slip-in or a permanently attached lining and often bearing the maker or retailer’s label
Mad Hatter: refers to the character in Alice in Wonderland, harking back to the hatters of olden days that suffered from mercury poisoning during the felting process
Milliner: a person or company that makes hats and fascinators specifically for ladies
Melusine: Christys’ term for fur plush; the strands are not uniform as is for silk plush
Merino: wool twill used in the facing of the underbrim of top hats
Mourning band: traditionally, a very wide detachable hatband secured with a tiny row of buttons, or a narrow hatband permanently secured to the hat
Mourning veil: see Weeper(s)
Opera hat: a collapsible top hat
Petersham: a ribbed rayon ribbon with a saw-tooth edge
Plush: a fabric with strands forming a pile, like velvet, but has a directional nap that aligns flat when brush in one direction; used to cover the shell of a top hat
Polishing (top hat): the act of using a pad (usually of velvet) to align the nap of the plush in a uniform direction so that light reflects off the surface to a greater degree of clarity; water or tallow may be used also to make the nap adhere to the surface creating a high shine
Potance block: see Half block
Potance frame: a C-shaped frame secured onto a table with a vice from which different half blocks are installed
Quilted sweatband: a sweatband made of silk or rayon, padded with cotton and stitched together; used on country and riding toppers for comfort
Rayon: artificial silk; also called ‘viscose’
Reblocking: the process of reshaping the crown and/or brim of a hat, often to remove dents or creases
Reconform: the process of reshaping the head shape of a hard hat
Regent style top hat: a top hat with a crown similar to that of a Stovepipe style top hat but the brim is not flat
Refurbishment: to clean or change certain things on a top hat
Renovation: to repair and clean a top hat
Restoration: to return a top hat to its original condition using authentic trimmings and methods
Riband: another term for hatband
Riding weight: see Country weight
Satin: shiny silk
Semi-bell crown: as Bell (crown) but the degree of curving at the sides is smaller
Shell: the overall structure of a hard hat from which it is covered with an appropriate material
Sides: the sides of the crown of a top hat
Silk: a natural material produced by silk moths but sometimes used for artificial or fake silk as well so ‘pure’ is sometimes affixed before to avoid confusion
Silk hat: a term for a silk plush top hat
Silk hat heater: a special heater for silk top hats used in the process of reconforming (steaming can ruin the silk plush)
Silk shag: the original term used for silk plush
Soft hat: a hat that is soft and malleable and can be manipulated easily in the hands without the need to heat the hat
Stovepipe style top hat: the crown of a top hat that is taller than 7″ and the sides are completely straight with the brim most often flat
Sweatband: a strip of leather or fabric inside the crown of a hat that is in contact with the head when worn to stop sweat from seeping into the hat as well as to act as a cushion for the head
Tip: the top flat part of the crown of a top hat
Tip block: a metal disc on a spinning pole used in the process of blocking or polishing the tip of a top hat
Tipping: to point, to touch or to lightly grasp the brim of a hat when wearing it as a gesture of greeting or acknowledgement
Topper: alternative name for a top hat
Town weight: a hat that is light, its shell being made of one layer of goss
Trimmings: refers to the silk ribbon, sweatband, lining, etc used to finish a hat
Twill: a fabric with very faint diagonal ribbing
Upperbrim: the top side of the brim of a top hat
Underbrim: the underside of the brim of a top hat
Weeper(s): a wide length of black silk crêpe with un-hemmed edges (around 5″ x 6′) tied around the topper with the excess length hanging behind, worn by the chief mourner or funeral announcer of a funeral party (though these days, they are mostly worn by funeral directors)
Wellington style top hat: a top hat with a crown similar to a Full bell crown but with very concave sides and a swooping brim to a great degree with a dipped fore and aft and high sides
White hat: old term for a grey top hat
Yeoman Farmer style top hat: short crown top hat similar to that of an Equestrian top hat with curled brim
Once you have obtained your topper, be sure to look after it carefully as it should last a lifetime (indeed, it should last generations.) But it won’t be longer before you start your search for your next, and the next, and the… Using my tips and pointers, you won’t have to spend a fortune. And now you have a topper, why not go out and find occasions to wear it? If you look hard enough, there are!
4th March 2010: Expanded information on brim curl and silk brim binding and wool toppers. Added new paragraph on hat boxes/cases for toppers. Replaced satin opera hat photo with new one.
23rd March 2010: Added paragraph about grosgrain brims.
26th March 2010: Added clarification on Patey’s canvas case. Add a bit more on the conformateur, etc. Various spelling/grammatical corrections. Update prices.
29th May 2010: Added new website that sells vintage hunting toppers. Add information about country weight toppers.
25th June 2010: Updated information on Ascot Top Hats (including a paragraph on their new fur plush toppers in the fur melusine section). Added information on Silk Top Hats and their new silk plush toppers. Clarify information on the Patey hat case.
10th July 2010: Added link to British Pathé vintage film footage of silk top hats being made by Sidney Patey.
27th February 2011: Revised hatters list, updated prices, removed some dead links and sites not good enough. Added more info on underbrim and leather sweatband, etc. Update prices for Silk Top Hat new silk plush toppers.
3rd March 2011: Fixed McMicking address link.
4th March 2011: Added paragraph about provenance, grey toppers, mourning bands, cloth opera hats, etc. Clarified the different types of toppers so ‘fur melusine’ and ‘fur felt’ are distinct from one another. Added new section on price rises. Added captions to all images. Expanded wool felt topper description.
5th March 2011: Added new hatter to list: Vintage Toppers.
18th March 2011: Minor updates and corrections. Added images of new silk plush topper and rayon plush topper as well as images of various damages to silk toppers, riding sweatband, brim binding, etc. Added new paragraph on dents to crown and the reblocking process.
5th April 2011: Added paragraph on how to tell the sizing of a hat is correct.
10th April 2011: Replaced most of the dead link Patey photos.
4th May 2011: Added information and photo about Beckham’s ‘hat’ at the Royal Wedding.
15th June 2011: Added a Glossary section. Changed some words, etc.
17th & 18th June 2011: Added more terms to Glossary. Minor corrections.
22nd June 2011: Added a paragraph clarifying my views on Ton Meewuis’s new silk top hats.
6th July 2011: Added Christys’ new site and Top Secret Hats (neé Hornet Hats).
16th August 2011: Embedded links to some images.
20th September 2011: Added a sentence on inserting foam/cork strips under sweatband.
28th September 2011: Added some info about grey and brown silk toppers, inc. a photo.
6th October 2011: Added info about weepers.
20th October 2011: Fixed broken linked photos.
27th October 2011: Added more info about silk grosgrain ribbon and a link to the guide about replacing the brim binding.
3rd November 2011: Added image of wool merino opera hat.
23rd February 2012: Correct date Dunnage introduced toppers to Britain, from 1973 to 1793. Fix broken link to conformateur and formillion image.
29th February 2012: Added image of grey silk top hat. Corrected some dates.
29th March 2012: Rewording here and there.
17th April 2012: Added link to Method of Making Top Hats blog post.
31st August 2012: Added another site, Silk Top Hat, to the list of hatters.
13th April 2013: Removed link to Top Secret Hats (company went bust in February 2013). Some copyediting. Added Sporting Study entry to Hatters of the Realm list, makeshift hat box, etc.
14th April 2013: Added a line on ‘fly wings black’, a very dark brown.
22nd April 2013: Removed link to polishing article. Added new photos of mourning bands.
23rd April 2013: Added link to The Silk Top Hat Company. Removed History in the Making (I don’t think the guy makes silk hats any more). Some minor edits to opera hats. Added note about Massimiliano Amicucci who seems to be able to make silk plush hats. Added photo of a different style of brim binding.
30th April 2013: Changed Country and Field Antiques to The Vintage Tack Room and updated link.