The top hat is a staple of Royal Ascot and summer weddings, but who introduced the topper and when? And how should you wear it? Here is the story of this iconic piece of headwear.
The top hat is most often seen in June. Removed from its carrying case, buffed up for best, it adorns the heads of racing enthusiasts at Epsom and Ascot and summer weddings. But the wearing of a top hat is not simply a question of squashing it on to pate akin to the artful dodger, and heading towards the nags. No, the sartorial code surrounding the cylindrical headwear of the British summer season is littered with minefields.
The grey felt topper is sometimes perceived as less smart than its black silk brother. There is a whiff of something hired for the day, and more often than not it is badly fitting. The black silk topper is no longer available new, as the silk has long since ceased to be produced, so a vintage model buffed to a brilliant shine is the best option.
But colour aside, it is also crucial as to how one wears his topper. When a sprightly HRH The Duke of Edinburgh attended Ascot in June 1949 with his grey topper at an unconscionably rakish angle (“tilted forwards almost on to his nose”) it made the front page of the newspapers. The Duke was a source of sartorial woe for hat makers at the time. They decried his unwillingness to wear hats, in stark contract to the Duke of Windsor as a young man. And the appearance of the Duke in a top hat worn “like a Guardsman” caused perturbation
Lewis C. Juchaw, editor of the”Hatters’ Gazette,” was a bit shaken, too.
“I earnestly hope that this doesn’t indicate a new hat fashion,” he told me.”It looks as though the Duke, instead of pushing his hat back off his brow as most men do, pushed it down from the back, either’in amazement or to keep the sun out of his eyes. No man could wear a hat like that comfortably.The recognised way to wear a grey topper is slightly off the face, like a Homburg, or level. I thought the Duke’s brim had rather more curl than is usual”.
But top hats used to appear in a range of sizes, shapes and colours. The history of the top hat is an intriguing one. Nicholas Storey traces the history and design of the iconic toppers.
Have you inherited a silk topper fit for use but not quite the perfect size? Take our advice on how to resize top hats, and get yours ready in time for Ascot.
HISTORY OF TOP HATS
After the 1832 Reform Act abolished “rotten” and “pocket” boroughs, and broadened the electoral franchise to include substantial numbers of middle-class, male voters and parliamentary candidates, the Duke of Wellington surveyed the newly elected House of Commons and said: “I have never seen so many shocking bad hats in my life.” Presumably these were silk toppers, hastily bought to try to enable the new members of parliament to look the part.
Janet Taylor, successively of James Lock & Co (established not later than 1676) and then of Patey Hats (established in 1799, the only British gentleman’s bespoke hat-maker left, with a shop in Bermondsey, London SE15), says that the top hat, as we would recognise the modern item, was invented by a Frenchman and the fact that the French had early silk toppers is supported by an article entitled La Centenaire du Chapeau in La Mode Pratique (No 6, 6 February 1897), which points out that a 1796 painting by Carle Vernet depicted an incroyable in a French silk top hat. Prior to being called “top hats”, they were merely “silk hats” or “beaver hats”; later on, in the mid-19th century, the high toppers sported by the Prince Consort and Isambard Kingdom Brunel were sometimes called “stove-pipe hats”. Before silk was used, most were made of lustrous beaver-fur felt. An excellent example of a beaver topper is shown in Alexander Korda’s 1934 film The Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Leslie Howard. Evil revolutionary Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) thinks that the Pimpernel has been executed by his sans culottes soldiers but the eponymous hero comes back into the room with the line: “I am sorry, Monsieur Chauvelin, I had to come back for my hat; it’s such a cursed good hat, you know.”
HISTORY OF TOP HATS: THE FIRST MODERN TOPPER
References to beaver hats, such as cocked hats, go back a long way so it is difficult to pinpoint in the history of top hats exactly when the forerunner of the modern topper was created. Moreover, so far as the shape is concerned, representations of tall, cylindrical hats stretch back into ancient history.
Urban myth has it that Strand clothier John Hetherington was the first man to wear a silk top hat in London, in early 1797. It was variously reported, including in an alleged 1797 edition of The St James’s Gazette and in an actual 1890s edition of The Hatters’ Gazette, that he appeared, “on the public highway, wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people… several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken.”
Hetherington had caused a riot and was bound over to keep the peace in the then enormous sum of £500. Some versions of the story go so far as to name him as the actual inventor of the silk top hat, or of top hats in general.
However, whether the Hetherington story is true in any degree, it should now be considered in connection with the discovery of references in the West Sussex Records Office to (George) Dunnage & (Thomas) Larkin, described in a bill, dated 1798, to the then Lord Egremont as makers of “waterproof silk hats”.
HISTORY OF TOP HATS: PIONEERING SILK HATTER’S PLUSH
Ascot Top Hats Ltd has gathered evidence that Dunnage first made a form of hat using a napped, silk shag (hatter’s plush) as “imitation of beaver” in 1793. The invention was approved as a patent in 1794 and the firm of Dunnage & Larkin continued to be patent silk hat manufacturers until dissolution of their silk hat business in 1814. This evidence is supplemented by a book on the Dunnage family history, Dunnages: Weavers, Hatters, Clerics, Colonists, written by Louise Buckingham, George Dunnage’s descendant, in 1937, and by a further patent in 1798 for a ventilating top hat made of waterproof silk (for coachmen).
It is, therefore, reasonably possible of the history of top hats that George Dunnage and Thomas Larkin created the first silk top hats in Britain; however, the great Piccadilly hatter Lincoln Bennett was also an early pioneer of silk hatter’s plush, in imitation of beaver, and was certainly another early maker of silk top hats.
It would surely have been necessary for a form of silk plush to have been available prior to the Hetherington story, having been developed as a substitute for beaver felt, which had fallen into short supply. Silk would then have been used on all styles of hats, including tricorn and bicorn cocked hats, stretched over a rigid goss base – a method still used by Patey Hats when making the Lord Mayor of London’s tricorn hat.
With any style of hat it is often difficult to pinpoint the first of a type, not just for the history of top hats. I would suggest that the Hetherington hat may well not have been the very first but one of the first. However, we do know that it was Frenchman Antoine Gibus who, in 1834, first registered a patent for the collapsible opera hat or chapeau claque.
ABANDONED BY MODERN LIFE
There came a point in the mid 20th century at which silk toppers were still seen at some weddings, at investitures and a few funerals, as well as at Royal Ascot. Now they have been virtually abandoned at even the smartest weddings and are seen at funerals only on undertakers. In 1986, they ceased to be in daily use by stockjobbers, who had worn them for easy identification when being sought out to strike deals and, under procedural reforms, toppers ceased to be in daily use in the House of Commons in 1998. So, in a real sense, a version of this hat was in everyday fashion for an unbroken period of around two centuries; now, only in some schools, at investitures and at Royal Ascot do they remain de rigueur.
Back in the day, James Lock’s customers included Beau Brummell and other Regency dandies, bucks and beaux, such as the second Earl of Sefton, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, “Poodle” Byng (The Hon Frederick Gerald Byng, whose habit it was to parade around fashionable areas with a curly French poodle), Lord Manners and the sixth Duke of Beaufort; all featured in the 1820 illustration The Well Known Bond Street Loungers.
Each prided himself on the unique fit and style of his top hat, choosing a shape to complement his silhouette. Now the item is either proudly inherited or purchased, refurbished, from Lock’s or Patey’s – or discovered in a junk shop and then reconditioned by Patey’s. There are also traders who deal in them, such as Ascot Top Hats, Hetherington Hats and Top Toppers. The last factory to make silk hatter’s plush was owned by a pair of brothers in Lyons and there is a story that they fell out, dissolved their partnership by smashing up the looms and then flung the pieces in one of the rivers. A more prosaic version is that the manufacture just ceased in around 1969 because of health and safety issues in the manufacturing process. However, this was nothing to do with the mercury used, until 1941, in the production of felt for other types of hats, which caused hatters’ shakes and, famously, gave rise to the expression “as mad as a hatter”.
TOP HAT: TODAY’S BEST TOPPERS
Now, ironically, the best, modern, black top hats are produced, once again, using felt, containing lustrous beaver fur. Famous British blasts from the past for silk hats include Patey’s, Lock’s, Scott’s (hatters to King George V, formerly in the purpose-built, porphyry-fronted building that is still at 1 Old Bond Street, London W1, the business now subsumed into Lock’s), Lincoln Bennett (apprentice-master to Herbert Johnson), Henry Heath, Tress & Co and Herbert Johnson. Several crowned heads followed King Edward VII to Herbert Johnson, including the last Czar of all the Russias and the last Kaiser. The best hats are marked inside “Extra Quality”.
Hunting-weight top hats are handmade on extra-firm-weight shells, covered in felt and treated at Patey’s with a special finish, which weatherproofs them; do not, as some suggest, use boot blacking or Guinness. Patey’s treats all hunting-weight toppers in its workroom with waterproofing, added with hot irons. This is, in fact, the most traditional of procedures in the history of top hats but the company does not supply this proofing to customers because it requires skill to apply it – and this is best not attempted at home. The arcane nature of the process is, perhaps, redolent of Beau Brummell who, when asked how he made his famously shiny black leather boots gleam, replied confidentially that his blacking included the finest champagne.
The shells of hard hats are made from shellac, which is a hardened paste derived from the secretions of the scale insect Laccifer lacca. It takes 150,000 insects to produce a pound of shellac. It is also a constituent of the polish used to French-polish wood and, somewhat disturbingly, it is used in coating and shining-up the very best chocolates. To make a hard hat, a wooden block is made to replicate the customer’s head and the shell of the hat is made over this by putting linen fabric (called goss) over the block. The goss will have been covered in the liquid shellac (called coodle) and left for several months to cure. After curing, the hat is shaped, trimmed and finished. Patey’s uses its own conformateur finally to shape the hat to the customer’s head. This is a hat-shaped device with moveable levers, which produces a card showing the shape of the customer’s head.
HISTORY OF TOP HATS: TODAY’S TOPPER ETIQUETTE
The grey, silk top hat is known sometimes as a “white hat” and is probably almost extinct in the original silk plush. At one time in the history of top hats, silk top hats were made in colours other than just sleek black – on display in Lock’s “Country Room” there is a copper-coloured silk top hat with a note inside, which instructs the reader that it was once the pride and joy, and very possibly the signature hat, of a musical artist. It reads: Reward if Lost Return to: J Graham, personal address 6 Barnard Street, North Lond or local music hall Macdonald & Graham.
Owing to a shortage of materials after the First World War, dove-grey felt toppers were made, by Lock’s, specifically for Royal Ascot –it still supplies them today. Owners (except the young Winston Churchill) used to stow their hats at Lock’s between Ascots. This was for preservation and to ensure that they were not sported out of season. The felt shell is known as a “drab shell”. There used to be an Ascot suit, too – basically, a grey frock-coat suit. Nowadays, if a grey morning suit is worn to Royal Ascot it includes a coat in the standard morning-coat cut and often a grey felt top hat, although some seem to favour a black top hat with a grey coat and yet others prefer a black coat and grey topper. Presumably, the custom still holds good to wear a black top hat on Ladies’ Day, preferably of polished silk.
Finally, despite the contemporaneous report in Captain William Jesse’s 1844 biography of the great Beau Brummell that he never raised his hat to anyone for fear of disarranging his coiffure, just raising his right hand in the now discredited Roman salute, and also despite the fact that we do not wear hats much any more, always remember to doff your hat to those that you know – and to those that you would like to know.