Top Hats

The correct hat to wear with morning dress is the top hat. Today, top hats, unlike coats and waistcoats are, in most situations, non essential. In an ideal world, people would wear top hats all day everyday, but we have found them vastly impracitcal in most modern day situations. Wearing a top hat is like having a baby with you: it dictates what you can do and where you can go the entire time (and when you’ve got one, you will bore your friends by talking of nothing else). In fact, if you can’t get hold of a decent top hat, it is nearly always preferable not to wear one. Wearing a second-rate top hat can make your otherwise excellent outfit look like fancy dress, whereas, with the exception of Royal Ascot, foregoing a top hat altogether is usually perfectly acceptable.

There are many kinds of top hat and generally they come in two colours: black and grey (sometimes pedantically referred to as ‘white’ even though it is literally grey). Black top hats are predominantly made from silk and grey from felt, although both can be made from either. Black silk is regarded, more by concensus than anything else, as more formal than grey, but it is difficult to think of occasions these days when a grey top hat would be considered criminally informal. The decision to wear a black or grey top hat, therefore, is mostly down to personal choice and which colour looks best with which outfit, or, more probably, by which of the two you can get hold of.

Dunn&Co Topper

Dunn & Co black silk top hat made in the late 1930s

Lincoln Bennett grey felt top hat 1930s

Lincoln Bennett grey felt top hat 1930s

Top hats also come in a variety of styles, the principal points of variance being in the crown height, the body shape and the brim curl. Back in the 19th Century people wore a huge variety of top hats many of them extremely tall. However, gradually crown heights were normalised and since about 1920 most variation is found from shape and curl.

John Russell Vanity Fair

John Russell wearing a huge top hat in 1869. It's a caricature, but you get the point.

This hat made by Christys’, for instance has a more concave shape and pronounced brim curl  than the Dunn & Co example. It must be stressed that most kinds curvature can look good and is purely a matter of personal choice.

Christys' black silk top hat early 20th

Christys' black silk top hat early 20th

So, what’s the difference between a second-rate top hat, and a top-notch top hat? As usual, we are reluctant to insist that vintage is best, as wearing somebody else’s old junk doesn’t necessarily float everybody’s boat, for some reason. However, with top hats it is hard to advise otherwise because you can quite easily get a better quality hat at a mere fraction of the price, and for silk you have no choice as they are simply no longer made.

Take this offering from highly respected tailoring outfit Gieves & Hawkes:

Gieves & Hawkes Black Top Hat

Gieves & Hawkes black top hat £250

As you can probably see, the hat is made of inferior materials – evident in the misshapen curve of the brim and the poor edge definition at the top of the crown. Without any exaggeration it really does look similar to a fancy dress costume.
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