Posts Tagged ‘top hats’

Just to inform you all, I would be doing a ‘Turn’ for the New Sheridan Club on Wednesday 7th March 2012 at one of their monthly club nights. I’ve done a Turn before talking about academical dress but for this one I will be talking about top hats.

The talk will be based on the Guides I have written in regards to sourcing and polishing toppers but would also explain more about the history, usage and how they are made.

If you are interested, please go to The Wheatsheaf (go upstairs) on Rathbone Place (just off the TCR end of Oxford Street) in London at 7pm on the day. The talk would commence at 8pm and hopefully be finished by half past.

As it’s a NSC club night, members go for free, non-members must pay £2 unless it is their first visit. And as usual, gentlemen are reminded that ties must be worn (or you will be made to wear a nasty polyester one in ghastly colours/designs).

If you do have a top hat, please bring it with you and wear it on the night (yes, even inside as this is an exceptional occasion). I will give you an estimation as to its worth and some advice, etc.

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Me and Nicholas Simon Augustine “Nick” Knowles (of DIY SOS fame) share the same passion: top hats.

Here is the article in question (dated Sunday 27th February 2011): http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/231513

Reproduced in full below (in case it ever gets taken off line):

Nick Knowles, 48, may be best known for his DIY shows but when he is not hosting TV programmes the father of three likes nothing better than to doff one of his prized hats.

When I was young my father and his brothers wouldn’t leave the house without a hat, usually a trilby or a bowler, but that tradition died out in the mid-Fifties.

I was fascinated by that and the fact that the hat you wore was once so related to class so I started looking at hats and going to museums and soon became obsessed with top hats, starting to collect them in earnest when I was 28. Since then I have amassed a collection of 13.

The first top hat I bought cost me about £50 and came from a shop in Covent Garden. I thought it was fairly well made. Since then I’ve started buying more and more and investing more in the ones I buy.

Before too long I had even started commissioning specialists to make them to my own designs.

I wanted one that harked back to the late 1800s, a very London-based, John Bull-style hat. They had what is called a belled top, which means it’s wider at the top than it is where it attaches to the [b]rim. They look just like Mad Hatter hats. As no one makes them like that any more I had to go to Patey Hats in London and plead my case. Luckily they were more than willing to help out, simply saying: “If you draw it, we’ll make it.”

Patey Hats has a Royal Warrant and is one of the best of its kind in London. They measure the shape of your head with this enormous contraption [i.e. the conformateur] and the first time I saw what shape my head was it was quite a surprise. In your imagination you assume it is perfectly round but people often discover it looks more melon shaped or pear shaped.

The hats I’ve ordered from Patey’s are beautifully made but they are not cheap. They cost about £400 or £500 each but they are the real deal, not just for fancy dress. I am getting one made for Ascot, it is black with a belled top.

I’ve even had a go at making top hats myself and one year I made one for my girlfriend, again that was to wear to Ascot. It was a lot of effort but I’m glad I gave it a go as it was really interesting to find out exactly what the process involves.

Occasionally I will pick up a new top hat at an antique shop or hear about auctions where there are some particularly special purchases to be bid for.

At auction some rare examples can go for thousands. My most expensive hat cost £4,500, it is from the mid-to-late 18th century and is in black French silk which is very, very rare.

I don’t wear that one out, or any of my oldest hats either as they are so fragile, but I regularly wear most of the others.

In the old days they were made for comfort and were lighter but it means they are very easily damaged. Today they are heavier and harder and worn more for show.

Another inspiration for collecting top hats was going to a lot of rugby matches and getting abuse from my Celtic cousins.

I felt I wanted to be even more English so I went to matches wearing a Mad Hatter hat as I thought it seemed to have a sense of fun and Englishness about it. I got monstrous abuse but it was well worth it.

I am moving house at the moment so the collection is in storage but I had them on display in my last house. As long as they don’t get damp or have anything heavy leaning on them they are fine.

The top hat I would most like to get hold of is a George V-style one that is particularly tall, cream and US-made. It is very belled-top and about half the size of a standard top hat. That would cost thousands and they don’t come up for sale very often unfortunately.

If I had to save one hat from my collection it would be the dark brown belled-top John Bull-style top hat, which I had made and cost me £560. I wear it a lot so it gets roughed up and it has a real feel of old London about it.

The person who first wore a top hat in 1797 was arrested and fined for scaring horses and upsetting people with such a ridiculous item of clothing.

My girlfriend pretty much thinks I should be arrested when I go out wearing mine but she puts up with it because she knows I am eccentric.

My children are also slightly embarrassed but once everyone is wearing them, which will happen over the next five years, they will realise that their father blazed the trail and they will be very proud of me.


I would love to meet him one day and start having a long chat about toppers and see his collection.

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Top Hat Advice and Guidance

Here are the essential articles concerning top hats that will be useful to you all but permanently placed on here for easy access.

Guide to Buying a Top Hat

The only guide on the internet to top hat sourcing and purchasing with some information on restoration. Deals with silk, fur and opera hats.

Don’t go and buy a topper until you have read this essential information!

Guide to Polishing a Top Hat 

Guide to bringing a silk topper to a high polish. Mostly based on self-experimentation and some existing practices.

NB: I’ve taken this article off-line because I think you really need to know what you’re doing before attempting to tallow polish a topper and also because I now believe the water polishing method isn’t really good for the hat so don’t want to mislead people into using it. Therefore, I would only advise using the brush and velvet pad for polishing whilst leaving actual tallow polishing to the professionals. 

Method of Making Top Hats

Not a guide but an explanation of how silk top hats are made. With links to videos.

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One of my New Sheridan Club colleagues alerted me to a letter that was published in The Times newspaper on the 16th June 2011. Here it is below:

Sir, The preponderance of black stove pipe hats is making Royal Ascot look like an undertakers’ convention. The grey topper is more suitable to a summer race meeting but appears to have joined the “at risk” species.

It is fashion, I fear, but if men really wish to pass themselves off as Victorian mill owners, they should invest £2,000 or so in a black silk shaped hat, not one of the Mad Hatter coal scuttles seen crammed down on unlikely heads and only kept up by pink ears.

Michael Cole
Woodbridge, Suffolk

There are several inaccuracies and presumptions that needed to be corrected here. The letter is rather vague: does he mean all black toppers or just the wool ones? And does he mean a silk plush topper when he says ‘black silk shaped hat’ (which for me conjures up the image of David Beckham’s Royal Wedding sorry excuse for a topper)? Also, there are hardly any stovepipe crown toppers worn nowadays; the most common is the semi-bell crown.

In any case, it would be a failing of me to not respond to this after being given the green light to respond so I wrote this immediately:


Black top hats are suitable for Royal Ascot and at any time of the year. It is the black wool variety that is more suitable for the undertaker as it does not polish to a shine (hence why mourning bands are made of wool). The ‘white’ hat was once made of silk but now it is made of fur felt as grey silk plush is no longer produced (though I know of one hat maker in the entire world that can make black silk top hats out of new silk plush) and came to be worn at the races as it was fashionable to do so before the War. Currently in the UK, black fur plush top hats are the best hats available. The better silk plush variety can be had vintage from as little as £35 for those with a small hat size (the larger the size the more expensive as people in the past had smaller heads). It is better to get one of these vintage hats than splash out thousands on something like David Beckham’s sorry excuse for a topper. Plus, I think black hats look better with morning dress than grey ones. Also, the most common shape of a top hat is a semi-bell and not a stove pipe which has a crown taller than 6 1/2” and the sides are straight and do not taper like the ones worn by President Lincoln.


Charles Rupert Tsua

Author of ‘Guide to Buying a Top Hat’


The letter was published in today’s Times and I have scanned it below:

They missed out the bit about new silk toppers (probably because they didn’t believe in that claim). It’s too bad they didn’t mention my Guide or provide a link to it as it would help quite a number of people I suppose.

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