Many of us millinery fans here at Royal Hats only dream of attending the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Frequent commenter Charles (Chicago Chuck) shares the marvellous story of what he did when faced with the challenge of finding a hat to wear to these legendary races. Enjoy!
In June 2012, my partner and I received the invitation of a lifetime to attend the annual Service of Thanksgiving for The Most Noble Order of the Garter. The invitation alone would have been reason enough to travel to Windsor from our home in Chicago. However, I knew that the Garter service is always scheduled on the Monday of the same week as the annual five-day meeting of Royal Ascot. So my planning wheels started turning!
After much planning, I was able to procure badges for my partner and myself for two days at Royal Ascot in the Royal Enclosure. Entering the Royal Enclosure requires a strict dress code – formal cocktail dress with hat for women; formal morning attire with top hat for men. Growing up in North Carolina and now living in Chicago, I never had reason or occasion to wear morning attire, much less own it. And I certainly never had a reason to wear or need to own a top hat! But, here I found myself, with plans to attend two days at Ascot (and one at the Garter service) where I would be required to wear formal morning attire. What to do?
My partner and I decided to purchase morning attire (online from England) but decided we would just rent (hire) our hats. When we arrived in Windsor for our stay (we were accommodated at Windsor Castle for the week, but that’s a story for another time) we dutifully made our way to Moss Bros. to pick up our rental hats. Needless to say, while they satisfied the requirement for us to gain admittance to the Royal Enclosure, we might as well have been wearing buckets on our heads. The hats were heavy, hot, and did not fit. Almost immediately I realized our hats were not like the “smarter” hats I saw on some of the other gentlemen.
Me, being me, I stopped and talked to a few of the men who were wearing a hat that was simply more stylish and handsome than the hat I was wearing – who doesn’t like a stranger come up to him and compliment on his handsome hat, and how good he looks wearing it? I came to find out that these hats were indeed different – they were antique, professionally fitted, and fashioned out of heavy silk.
A little bit of background for you- top hats were made with a layer of heavy silk as opposed to beaver felt for about 75 years (late 19th Century through mid-20th Century). The silk was heavy enough to have a clear nap or pattern to the fabric whereby it could then be polished to a high sheen. Because even the heavy silk was thinner than the felt, the hats were also styled with a more prominent and crisp bell shape to the crown and a sharp corner where the crown meets the top of the hat. It takes only one look at a silk hat to see how much more handsome it is than one fashioned from felt, as top hats have been since the mid-20th Century (and were prior to the late 19th Century).
The story of why the heavy silk is no longer created (and, hence, why silk top hats are no longer manufactured) is murky. The story one hears most often is the family in France who made the silk had a falling out and the specialty looms they used were destroyed in the squabble. As they were the only family who had these looms, there is nowhere else in the world to weave the silk for these hats. I further hypothesize there isn’t enough market for silk top hats today to justify rebuilding the looms.
The evening after our first day at Ascot, I set out to find my partner and me hats like the silk masterpieces we saw earlier in the day. I proceeded to peruse ebay, as a few of the men I spoke with suggested that was a good place to find an antique hat – this, of course, if you aren’t lucky enough to inherit your grandfather or father’s hat. Through this search, I located a man whose side business is finding good quality silk top hats and refurbishing them for resale.
My partner and I made a trip to his shop, located in essentially a garage, in a section of London I never expected to visit. But this man had the “real deal.” He had hats, hats, hats – all silk, all antique, and, most importantly, all beautifully restored but at a price significantly lower than that found in a retail store. We first had our heads measured with a conformateur, an antique device placed on your head that measures your head and makes a diagram of the shape of your head . These measurements are kept on file so that if you ever need a hat in the future, the diagram is there to guide the hatter in your selection. And, by the way, this man had diagrams for virtually all the members of the royal family, including Her Majesty The Queen!
From there, the man assisting us looked through his inventory to find hats that would fit and feel comfortable on our heads. When I say that the rental hat felt like a bucket on my head, the silk, antique hats we ultimately purchased both fit perfectly and feel like they were each meant to rest upon our heads like personalized crowns.
After selecting the hat that felt most comfortable, the hatter then adjusted each hat by using an open gas flame that softens the gossamer of the hat; the softened fabric has just enough ‘give’ to allow the hatter to adjust the hat so that it fits perfectly on your head. With that, we were on our way with our “new” hats and anticipation of the next day at Royal Ascot.
To say that the experience of wearing a fine silk top hat that fits perfectly was enjoyable is certainly an understatement. I’ve never felt more dapper in my life!
And, one of the best things about owning and wearing a hat like this is men and women came up to me and asked me about my beautiful hat, just like I had done on my first day at the races. Each time I’ve worn the hat the same thing has happened and, believe me, it is fun! One of the most wonderful things about owning this beautiful hat is it will last me the rest of my life. The Duke of Edinburgh famously wears the same two hats – one black, one gray – he has worn for decades. Like so many things in life, when you have a well-made product and care for it well, it will last for many years.
Exceptional finishing from all views of Charles’ antique silk top hat
Which brings me to the last part of the story – how does one travel with and store a silk top hat? Well, of course they used to make travelling cases expressly for this purpose. Back to ebay I went! After another search, I located a man who procures and resells antique luggage. Through him, I was able to find two beautiful antique leather carrying cases. They are made both for storage and for transport to protect your silk hat.
What fun it was the first time we used these cases, travelling a year later from Chicago to London for the 2013 meeting of Royal Ascot. Needless to say, as we made our way onto the plane carrying the two leather cases holding our silk hats, we were questioned quite a few times about what we were carrying in those cases. But when we arrived at our destination in London and readied ourselves for the first day of Royal Ascot, our beautiful antique, silk top hats were ready for a day at the races.
If you would like more information on silk top hats I would suggest this blog’s Guide to Buying A Top Hat.
Thank you Charles, for sharing the marvellous journey to find your silk hats. They are truly magnificent masterpieces from an era of millinery that sadly, is now extinct. I will never look at a royal top hat quite the same way again! I have included two short films below on silk hats- one from British Pathé looking at how they were made and one from Royal Ascot showing the process of restoring antique hats.
Photos from the author and The Morning Dress Guide. Photos may not be used or reproduced without direct permission.