Friday, April 1, 2011

Proper Toppers

Chapter 8
When you go about refining your outfit and defining your personal style within the reasonable bounds of Classic Style, the finishing touch is always a hat. You've certainly been used to wearing baseball caps all of your life, and I have introduced you briefly to fedoras and trilbys and other "soft felt" styles of hat in previous installments. But you are not fully dressed without an introduction to the absolute expression of pre-eminent hatting: the Top Hat.

The good old "topper," in various forms, has been worn continuously since the late seventeenth century, and its parallel development and use alongside the Classic Style suit since its inception in the 1830s, ties it inextricably to what we know as the "suit" today. It has admittedly been seen less in the U.S. since the Kennedy presidency, which had attempted to ban male hat-wearing altogether. Succeeding generations are finally shaking off those musty old-fashioned restrictions of the late-twentieth century and are again beginning to wear hats, and with it, the top hat is enjoying a refreshing renaissance. The cutting edge of classic fashion for all ages is all about the top hat; so to dress like a grown up today, it is becoming imperative to own at least one, and preferably more styles, of this type of classic headwear. 

First, of course, we need to look at the top hat's history and development. It was originally stiff and rigid, and was designed as a protective helmet when the leisure class went joyriding on horseback. Horseback accidents usually did not, as today, involve lateral collisions at greater than 30 mph, but vertical collisions involving one's cranium and the earth beneath. The hat was thus built to be gradually crushable: as it met the ground before the top of your head, it slowed the moment of impact, thus minimizing damage to you; at the sacrifice, unfortunately, of your hat. It was, in fact, the first vehicular crumple zone, Volvo not having been invented yet.

The crash-helmet origins of the top hat eventually became secondary to its striking appearance: eventually, hats were made in "town weight:" much lighter, but offering proportionately less crash protection. Sort of like the modern motorcycle helmet's relation to the bicyclist's foam Wiffle-helmet, which legislation has forced the hapless bicyclist to wear in an effort to make him look even more ridiculous than he already does.

(It is axiomatic that what the leisure classes wear as sports wear, becomes the next generation working-classes' formal wear. Riding coat and crash helmet thus became top hat and tails. Following the trend through the centuries, this explains why people will get married in a Polo shirt and Dockers today, and if something isn't done soon, your grandchildren will get married completely naked. But I digress.)

Until the 1850s, top hats were largely constructed of felt made of beaver fur. This was replaced by felted silk when beavers were hunted to near-extinction. Felted silk hats became the standard until the aforementioned Kennedy administration in the early 1960s. Soon after, the last person to remember how to make felted silk died off, and the looms fell into disrepair and were destroyed. For the last fifty years, the top hat has either been made of wool felt, rabbit fur felt, or satin.

Most soft hats are make of but one layer of felt, formed over a mold called a block, and steamed into shape. A proper top hat, by contrast, is a highly constructed piece of engineering, either in "country weight" or "town weight." Because it is rigid, it needs to be carefully fitted to the shape of one's head with a hatter's conformature and formillion, not merely sized by circumference. It is constructed of a shell of gossamer: layers of calico fabric proofed in shellac and ammonia. When cured and dry, it takes on the consistency of plywood. The gossamer is formed and shaped on a cylindrical block, the crown is added, and the shape is seamed by heating the gossamer, which softens the shellac and binds the edges together. The brim is built up of further layers of gossamer over a form, covered in felt and edged in silk. When the form is dry, the silk (or fur, or felt) covering is slipped on, and ironed to the gossamer, softening the varnish underneath and binding it in place. The hatband and interior of the hat is added as usual. The "country weight" hat was constructed of two to three times more gossamer than "city weight" hats.

The top hat with which you may be most familiar is the High Silk Hat, which is always worn with formal wear. It is characterized by a high crown, subtly flared, a curled brim, and brushed and polished to an extremely shiny lustre. It is made in the traditional manner, as just described.

A more convenient hat is the Opera Hat. A clever device, it is not rigid and inflexible; indeed,  four spring-loaded rods that connect the brim to the crown make it collapsible, folding completely flat for convenience when you will have to store or check your hat at a venue. It typically has a flatter brim, a thinner band, and duller sheen than other top hats, and is made most often of satin.

Drab shell in dove grey
This is all fine for formal occasions and nights on the town, of course, but for everyday wear, black is unacceptably formal. Formality in top hats is determined by color, size, and sheen: the duller felts (called "drab shell" hats) may be worn in colors for casual use, but the most formal is always black and highly glossy. For day wear, a crown height of four to six inches is standard; for evening wear, six inches or greater.

Polished fur melusine

When choosing a colored top hat to wear during the day, it is important to have an eye for quality. Felt toppers abound, but many are of such poor quality as to be horridly unacceptable, just cheap costume wear. Preferable to drab shell is fur melusine, which, unlike felt, has a directional nap like plushed silk, and can be polished nicely to an acceptable sheen. Quality can be most readily seen along the top edge of the hat: a lesser quality hat's sides and crown are blocked in one piece. A good quality hat will have a sharp edge, for the crown and sides are attached separately, and the crown will be completely flat. The degree of curvature of the brim is an area of note as well; lesser quality hats as a rule have a flatter and less elegant brim. When wearing a top hat, as with all things, the quality of detail differentiates the poseur from the flâneur.

Summerweight straw

Colors are best kept to earthy tones and dark blues, as bright primary colors tend to lose the element of elegance: at the lightest, mid-tan or dove grey, but preferably dark autumnal hues. The summer months give a good opportunity to wear a straw option, either traditionally or as a sporty skimmer.

John Bull in brown
As with any factor related to dressing like a grown up, price need not be a limitation, if you do not fall prey to the cheap-and-easy road of shoddy craftsmanship. Online auctions and estate sales can reveal solid, wearable examples for much less than buying new, and a competent hatter is able to repair, reblock, and resize a decent worn example to like-new condition. The resurgence in top hat couture is reflected in the increased numbers of makers of low-crown and John Bull-style hats in various colors, in addition to the silk high hats. For those with cash to burn, bespoke top hats of any color and fashion can of course be made.

Suede, leather, and animal skins are becoming popular options for top hats. This should be ignored as an annoying youthful fad that will soon go away, and the sooner the better.

In addition to the usual sources for used and vintage items, these vendors are well-worth a mention.
Lock & Co. hatters, founded in 1676, offers a selection of hats in silk, fur, and drab, in black and grey colors. 
Ascot Top Hats offers a large variety of colors and styles, including opera, John Bull, and dressage; in black, greys, and browns, both new and refurbished antiques. 
Patey Hats is a bespoke hatter of renown. 
Silk Top Hats Dot EU is a Danish restorer who offers a variety of vintage silk hats as well as new-made ones.(Their inventory is sporadic, and have been out of service for a while. I'm hoping they will add items again soon.)
Hatcrafters Dot Com offers a wide variety of styles, but caution is called for to cull the well-made hats in elegant styles from the cheap costumery. They are worth a look, however, for their low-crown drab shells in a wide variety of attractive colors, and their fine straw toppers.

As a minimum, I would recommend the inclusion of four top hats to your wardrobe: 

1) A formal high silk or polished melusine of at least a 6" crown, for evenings out.
2) A summer straw of no greater than 5" crown, for casual vacation or country wear.
3) A John Bull or flared low-crown drab, in brown, for day wear.
4) A city-weight low-crown fur melusine variant in blue.

Melusine low crown in navy

Additions to these basic four should be a black opera hat, additional low-crowned drabs in differing shapes and colors, and a high straw variant for summer resort evening wear.

Armed thusly, you now have the information to go forth and hat yourself in a manner befitting the classically styled man, while at the same time riding the crest of the wave of Fashion, and be well-hatted no matter the occasion or time. Tally-ho!

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  1. All right, truth in disclosure: this WAS the April 1 posting, you know.

    Don't be an April fool -- please DON'T go out and buy stacks of top hats. As much as I would like the topper to make a grand comeback, it isn't, and chances are it won't. The only place to wear a top hat is the Ascot races. Technically, if you wanted to wear a topper with full-on white tie evening dress, you still can, but even that comes off affected and costumey nowadays, and is better off replaced by a black Homburg.

    1. Oh I get the joke, giving us our information and then giving us a false, juvenile telling off like a 'normal' person these days.

      Such an amusement! tip top farce.

      I'm off to get a proper fitted top hat and a decent silk waistcoat to go with my morning suit.

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