Magazine article The Spectator

Titfers for Toffs

Magazine article The Spectator

Titfers for Toffs

Article excerpt

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 plushmaking 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 plushmaking 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. …

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