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Thought some of you might enjoy this from that great British magazine The Spectator;

Top hats: Titfers for toffs
Damien McCrystal

In the next month or so, several thousand people will be retrieving dusty top-hat boxes from attics and above wardrobes. The hats are to be given their only annual excursions (barring daughters’ weddings which, one hopes, are not yearly events) at Derby Day and then Royal Ascot.

The Queen’s Stand at Epsom and its bigger, grander sister, the Royal Enclosure at Ascot both require visitors to wear full morning dress, including a topper. Some ill-schooled corporate types trot along to Moss Bros and rent the lot, including a felt-and-cardboard hat, but they stand out a mile and usually leave vowing either never to return or to purchase the real thing by next year.

From the hat’s point of view, the bigger of the two events is Royal Ascot. Every year there are at least 500 new entrants sponsored into the Royal Enclosure for each of the festival’s five days (first-timers are allowed in on only one day in their first year). So that’s a minimum each year of 2,500 new Enclosurites, half of them men, most of whom must set about finding the correct headgear. The days are almost gone when you can rely on a relative having a spare (especially with that many needing a loaner) because decent top hats — the silk plush ones — have not been made for half a century and probably never will be again.

The booting machines, which construct the shape, are easy to find but it is the hatters’ plush — a sort of velvety silk which can be brushed and caressed to a shiny smoothness which used to be the envy of the world — that is no longer made.

Top hats were essentially British and only ever worn by Britons, apart from a few old-schoolers in New York and Boston and the odd Australian. But funnily enough, the last manufacturer of the silk plush was based in Lille. It was apparently a rather small business run by two fiery-tempered French brothers. One weekend, about 50 years ago, they had a terrible row and one of them wreaked his rage on the plush-making machine, smashing it to tiny pieces, beyond repair.

This was a pity, because by then the top hat had been overtaken first by the bowler and homburg, then the trilby, and there was little demand for them. It was quite a socialist period of our history, you may recall, and the top hat was frowned upon as a tool of upper-class oppression, specifically designed to intimidate the flat cloth headwear of the peasantry.

Apart from Royal Ascot, Derby Day and some weddings, the only other place it was essential was the City, where money brokers and visitors to the Bank of England were required to wear one.

Until about 20 years ago, even the City editors of newspapers had to put one on before visiting the Bank’s governor. I have long suspected that this rule was enforced purely because Bank of England staff enjoyed laughing at the juxtaposition of the grand hat and the shiny brown Burton suits of the journalists. The hacks retaliated by battering their hats mercilessly so that they looked rather like Victorian tramps meeting the governor, and eventually the custom was dropped.

But the upshot of all of this was that demand had fallen so drastically that it was not worth anyone investing in a new plush-making machine, so the only silk top hats you can buy now are second-hand and increasing in rarity with every passing year. This can make them very expensive.

It was reported in the newspapers that Prince Charles paid £12,000 for Prince William’s, and that, although at the top end of the range, is by no means unusual. One of the biggest stocks is held by The Top Hat Shop, whose men’s sizes tend to sell for between £1,000 and £5,000 for the best quality (their felt ones, made by the famous hatter Christie’s, go for a by-no-means-negligible £349).

I believe, or like to believe, that the most expert hatter in this market, though, is Martin Ellis Jones, proprietor of Hetherington Hats in Chelsea. He runs his business from a tiny basement flat near Sloane Square and must certainly be more devoted than any other man in the country to the top hat.

Hats line every wall and cover almost every surface in his 10ft by 12ft sitting room, the hub of his business empire. They are stacked on side tables, lamp stands, atop the television and computer, hanging from the corners of antique mirrors and oil paintings — hundreds and hundreds of them, which he assures me he will sell more cheaply than his competitors (though he refuses to be drawn on details).

Ellis Jones is a former advertising man who gave up that business 15 years ago to become an antiques dealer, which led him into the world of silk top hats. It quickly became his obsession, and among his treasures are a steamer for adjusting the hat to the correct headsize, a conformature for measuring customers and even a bolt of unbelievably rare silk plush. His company is named after John Hetherington, a haberdasher who is believed by some to have invented the top hat in 1797 (others believe it was invented in China or France).

When Hetherington first wore his on the streets of London, some people panicked. Some women even fainted and dogs certainly barked. He was arrested and charged with wearing ‘a tall structure having a shining lustre and calculated to frighten timid people’. A finer advertisement for the new hat could not have been written by Ellis Jones (in his advertising days) and the topper took off. They were originally made from beaver felt but in 1850 Prince Albert started wearing one made from hatter’s plush, and everyone else immediately copied him.

As with The Top Hat Shop, this is a busy time of year for Hetherington Hats, and Ellis Jones is juggling a number of tasks at once when I visit him; but once he starts talking about the objects of his endless desire there is no stopping him. He applies the conformature, examines the result and pronounces my head very peculiar in shape, blunt at the front instead of the conventional taper, with a large bump on one side. It is precisely the same shape but smaller, he says, as that of The Spectator’s Peter Oborne (aristocrats, incidentally, have the smallest heads). He has only once come across an odder-shaped head than ours. It belonged to a newspaper executive, and had been badly smashed in a car wreck.

If you are prepared to gamble, as most racing folk are, there is a far cheaper source of antique top hats: the internet auction site eBay. Last December, when demand was at its lowest, I bought two — one perfect, the other rather battered, for a total of £140. They both fit perfectly, but others may not be quite so lucky. Still, it is possible to have them steamed into shape (Hetherington Hats can do this for you at a fair price). Clearly, they will be more costly as the races draw nearer. In the first week of this month, £250 looked to be eBay’s going rate and I would not be surprised to see this double in the coming weeks.

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Is the "destroyed loom" story factual? I see references to it everywhere, but no specific date. By the way, the brothers were Nicholas and Bobby Smith, and the location was Lyon...according to the most prevalent incomplete version of the story out on the net.

Top hats were never “essentially British and worn by Britons” - read your history. The inventor of the top hat is a mystery but it started showing up in Regency France around 1795 and was later seen in Britain and America when it replaced tricorn.

It was popular in both Britain and the United States high society from the early 18th century and declined after the gilded age, WWI and WWII.

Both my American grandfathers, my father, myself and my brothers all have owned and worn plush silk top hats into 21st century though nowadays it’s limited to weddings, university events and the occasional black or white tie event.

At these events I see plenty of other well heeled Americans wearing plush silk toppers.
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