Posts Tagged ‘toppers’

The header photo for this blog shows a group of old men in swimming costumes and top hats on (I also used it as a background photo for a Powerpoint presentation when I did the talk on toppers at the NSC in March 2012).

I had thought it was mid-Victorian based on the style of toppers worn and it seems I was correct based on this website:


The photo is of Brighton Swimming Club, dated to around 1863 and taken by Benjamin Botham.

The fascinating thing is (halfway down the page) the discussion on dating the photograph by examining the style of top hats and costumes the men were wearing; from stovepipes to bell crowns. This is a good guide to use to date hats of that period.

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I have already explained in detail how one should source a silk top hat and talked about the basic ins and outs of toppers. However, I have not explained how silk top hats are made. This blog will concentrate on that.

Before the method of silk top hat making came into being, the topper was made from a blocked piece of wool felt which was covered in the beaver/fur plush before being trimmed. This is essentially the same method that is still used for fur melusine hats today (the grey felt topper is blocked in the same way without the covering of course). The other method of using a gossamer base shell instead of the wool felt was probably invented by Lincoln Bennett and this method came to dominate how silk hats where made until the plush ran out in the 1940s.

The basic principle of this method is summarised in this video of the founder of Patey’s making the topper:


The information is very brief but it shows the main process of making one.

There is another video of the Dutch hatmaker, N. V. Jan Spoorenberg, demonstrating in detail the process of how his workshops make silk hats.


The process is slightly different at the beginning but after the shell has been made the rest is pretty much the same as the English method.

Below I have translated the text of the Dutch video (using Google Translate, I must add, so there may be mistakes!) and have also included my commentary on the process (with points on the English method where it differs from the Dutch). My commentary and edits will be in parentheses and italics. If you don’t understand some of the terms and topper jargon I use, please refer to the glossary at the end of the Guide to Buying a Top Hat blog.

The Hat from the Low Countries

At the beginning of December 1950, Mayor Kolfschoten visited the company of N.V. Jan Spoorenberg Silk Hats Factory of Van Kinsbergenstraat 39 in Eindhoven.

This workshop was founded in 1820 but was bombed in 1942 which completely destroyed it. On 1st September 1949 it was put into operation again.

Making the hat

The fabrication of a high hat starts with the brim, which is constructed out of flannel [?] cut into the correct shape.

NB: the English method starts with the crown first before making the brim. 

By ironing the flannel with shellac [powder], the flannel is hardened into a brim.

In order to strengthen the brim, the top [upperbrim] and bottom [underbrim] is faced with a layer of cheese cloth [which is ironed on].

NB: the English method uses four layers of goss ironed together to make the brim. This makes the brim very stiff and can withstand more pressure. The Dutch method takes more time and produces a more flexible brim. 

After the correct [hat] size is chosen, the brim will be prepared with an upstanding edge [i.e. inlay].

NB: this means the inner edge of the brim is ironed up to form an upstanding edge or inlay by first softening the inner edge with an iron, then it is slipped over a spinner (which is on a brim block) and the inlay is ironed against the spinner to form the inlay. The inner brim circumference is smaller than the spinner (with the actual hat size) so there is enough inlay to do this. 

A silk hat [block] consists of five parts, from which the crown is manufactured from.

White linen is soaked in the dissolved shellac which is hardened and applied to the sides [of the hat block].

NB: this ‘white linen soaked in shellac’ is gossamer/goss. As explained in the Patey video, this is made of linen, calico or cheesecloth that has been soaked in a solution of shellac, hot water and ammonia which is then stretched on a frame and allowed to cure for several months before it is used. This is where the English method starts; the crown’s side piece is cut to shape then both ends are seamed to form a cylinder, the hat block is then inserted into it, the top inlay is ironed flat onto the tip, the tip piece is ironed on to the top of the block, trimmed and the inlay is ironed onto the sides. Gum dammar stops the iron sticking to the goss. The Dutch method differs in that it directly applies the goss to the block with a cloth wrapped around it to stop the iron sticking to the goss. 

The brim is attached to the crown and the shell is complete.

NB: this is when the hat block is removed. The English method attaches the brim by slipping the goss with the hole correctly cut to size over the shell on a brim block and the inlay is ironed onto the crown.

The brim is cut to the correct width.

[The underbrim] will be faced with a layer of black [wool] merino, after which the [upperbrim] is faced with a strip of black [petersham? Grosgrain?]

NB: the traditional English facing of the upperbrim is with silk plush. The Continentals often use grosgrain or plain silk satin to face it. The underbrim is faced with wool merino twill but can also be faced with silk serge or (very rarely) silk plush.

The accurate cutting to size of the silk [plush] for the [covering] of the crown is the job of the manager.

NB: the silk plush comes in straight lengths with the silk nap running on the bias. The silk plush strip for the side piece is thus cut on the bias; the ends are thus angled. The side and tip pieces are seamed together carefully. 

The affixing of the [crown piece silk] to the shell is a highly [skilled] work.

NB: the silk covering must fit around the shell like a second skin. The shell is first varnished with shellac before the silk cover is eased over it. The key thing is to get the end seams of the side piece to match exactly. The nap of the left end must conceal the seam. The seam and the whole hat is carefully ironed so the silk cover is firmly affixed to the shell. The hat is then halfblocked on a potance frame to align the silk nap and fix the crown shape. 

To prevent further damage to the finish, the crown is wrapped in paper.

The brim of the hat must have its special shape. For this purpose the brim, with a hot iron [and tolliker], is [curled].

The folded edge is cut neatly.

Then the edge is [hand] moulded.

Now the hat is in the hands of the ladies. [Silk grosgrain] ribbon is [handsewn] onto the [edge].

NB: the hatband would also be installed.

Assembling of [the slip-in] lining.

NB: in the olden days, the lining would be ironed onto the shell before the crown is made. 

With gold letters the name of the retailer is embossed onto the leather [sweatband]. It is then [sewn onto] the hat.

After being passed under the watchful eye of the master, the high silk hat is then cased.

Also chapeaux-claques [opera hats], stabbing [bicornes?] and rijhoeden jachtcabs [riding hats?] are manufactured in diverese variations.

The maufacture of 10,000 high hats and the commissioning of the new plant was presented Mayor Kolfschoten.


So far as I know, only Patey’s have retained the goss method in making new top hats. They particularly use many layers of goss to make rather heavy hats and cover them with fur plush.

I hope this explanation illustrates the skills and effort involved in making top hats and that they aren’t just blocked like a normal felt hat. There is a lot of skill involved in their creation.

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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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Most recent update: 26th June 2018

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!

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire wears a silk plush topper whilst the men in the background wear silk grosgrain opera hats. Note how he wears it at a jaunty angle (the thespian’s slant). The more elegant (and proper) way is to wear it dead straight, especially in formal settings.


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 in the Royal Enclosure, 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.



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