Buying an Ascot Hat

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?

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Charles’ hot, heavy and ill-fitting hired hat

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).

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Charles’ more elegantly shaped and gleaming antique silk top hat

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!

A conformateur, used for measuring the shape and dimensions of a hat wearer’s head

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!

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Charles’ beautiful and perfectly fitted antique silk top hat

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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56 thoughts on “Buying an Ascot Hat

  1. I had seen a video of a silk top hat being made and custom fitted. (Perhaps it was a renovation, though.) I wish I had saved it somewhere to access it again! It was fascinating! I wish they still made the silk plush.

    Fascinating story, and I’m glad you got a proper silk top hat.

  2. Love this article. Charles, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. The heirloom hat is so much better than the rental hat, and you look wonderful wearing it. Thank you for this inside look at royal hats that we don’t usually get.

  3. Thank you Charles for being so generous with your time to research, write, and then respond to all the comments. This was such a delightful read and makes me muse about the other quality items in my life that are worth our time and care. I might just rush off to polish all my favourite “investment” shoes right now, then add more cedar chips to my jumper collection!

    HatQueen, what a lovely group of people you have gathered on your site. Thank you for all your dedicated work – we appreciate your thoughtful millinery curation.

  4. Thank you, Charles. I enjoyed every minute of this! My dear husband complains every time I make him wear his morning suit (he refers to it as his “penguin costume” but I suspect a hat like this might replace his grumbles with a proud spring in his step. As we have three important weddings to attend later this summer, this hat might be just the ticket!

    Thank you Charles and Hatqueen for bringing us this delightful article.

  5. Hi Charles. I am 13 years old and I thin top hats are brilliant. You look chuffed in yours and I would be chuffed if I was waring one to. It is my dream to go to Ascot all dressed up and you showed that dreams come true. I’m going to save up my pocket money and get a hat just like yours. I already found the places on google where I can go in London. Thank you.

    • Liam, you made me tear up a bit with such a wonderful comment! If you are serious about looking for a hat I can give you the contact info on the man from whom I purchased my hat – he is in London. He restores and sells hats as a side business. Most retail stores that sell restored hats sell them for no less than £1200. I purchased mine for £500 (and my partner’s was £600 because his hat is a bit larger). While £500 is a lot of money, I justified it knowing I’d have the hat the rest of my life (poor women who have to buy a new hat for each day!) Be very careful before you spend lots of money.

  6. There are NO WORDS to describe the FABULOUSITY of these hats. LOVE the stories about Her Maj and Princess Anne. LOVE LOVE LOVE.

  7. Well Charles, I always enjoy your comments very much. Now I will enjoy them even more!

    Until today, I thought a top hat was a top hat was a top hat. Did you ever show me how wrong I was! You look so dapper and distinguished in your hat and I am positively green with envy at your trips to Ascot, the Garter, Windsor Castle etc. Your stories about the Queen and Princess Anne gave me the giggles!

  8. After lurking here for almost 2 years, I enjoyed this article so much I had to say thanks! Charles your hats are incredible and you shared so much about silk hats that I had no idea about.

    I love this blog. It’s fun and I feel like I’m always learning new things. I can’t wait for the wedding this weekend and Ascot next week!

  9. There is nothing more handsome than a man in a morning suit with a real top hat like these ones. I have reread this post 3 times Charles to soak up every tidbit. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story about finding your hats. I enjoyed it very much. What a perfect way to get us all even more excited about Ascot!

  10. I love seeing these traditional silk hats find a new lease on life. One question, Charles, what does the hat feel like to the touch? I’m afraid these antique pieces might feel brittle and rigid. No matter, they look beautiful and I thank you for writing such a fine contribution.

    • The hats are remarkably sturdy. They are rather strong it seems (I wouldn’t want to sit on mine or have a car run over it as the man in the video says!). However they are also very light which I believe comes from the fact they are really just heavy layers of gossamer, which I can best describe as dried paste. The skill to make them is clearly an art that is at best dying and, at worst, sadly almost extinct.

  11. Best online anything I’ve read in months. Informative with lots of opportunity to drool over these handsome hats.

    Thanks for including royal hats for us blokes. The men are oft overlooked when it comes to fashion and it’s good to see them represented here.

  12. How fantastic!! Sounds like a wonderful time was had by all. You can add my name to the list of those green with envy!! 🙂

  13. Oh my goodness, what a marvelous story! Charles, after reading all the comments, you are quite the raconteur !!! Marvelous, wonderful stories and I thank you so very much! The only thing that would make it better would be all of us having tea together wearing our hats!!!!! Thank you again and thank you Hat Queen for bringing these wonderful stories to us!!

  14. What a great story! I’m sorry to say that I never paid much attention to top hats before but you have completely changed that for me! Now when I see a top hat, I’m going to look at the top too see how “crisp” it is and look for the curved “bell” sides on the crown. Am I right in guessing that most royal top hats aren’t antique silk ones?

    I’m now very curious about Prince Phillip’s two silk hats. Have we seen them here on Royal Hats, HatQueen?

    • Indeed, we have. All of these photos were taken at Ascot in 2014

      Embed from Getty Images

      Embed from Getty Images

      Here’s where I’ll need some help from Charles- while this hat has always looked to me like it is make of felt, I believe it’s the grey silk one Charles referenced.

      Embed from Getty Images

      Embed from Getty Images

      • To give these hats a true sense of their history, here is the black silk one at Ascot in 1967

        Embed from Getty Images

      • Prince Philip’s gray hat – silk or felt? From the photos I’d have to say felt. However, if it is felt it is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Notice that it has a distinct bell curve to the crown and is crisp where the crown meets the top of the hat, elements not usually seen on felt hats. There were some gray silk hats back in the day, but not many, which is interesting because many gentlemen believed black hats were only for formal occasions and gray hats were for more social outings, e.g., weddings and the races, so why didn’t they make more gray silk hats? If you look at the other members of the royal family who wear gray hats none of their hats have the shape of Prince Philip’s hat, so who knows? And it is absolutely clear Prince Philip has been wearing the same gray hat for decades – his hat has a distinctive flat area at the front of the brim and you can see that in photos from decades ago. I don’t know if he has a habit of playing with the brim or what – I’ve never seen a brim with that shape on any hat other than his. As I say, very few gray hats were made using silk and those that have survived are ridiculously expensive. I’ve seen one silk hat that wasn’t gray or black – it is called “white” but it was actually sort of dirty tan color. It was for sale in the shop at Royal Ascot the first day I ever attended. The price was £15,000 (at that time about $45,000US)!!! But it was gone the next day – did someone cough up that much cash for a hat?!?!

  15. This was a very unique article and even my husband came and read it over my shoulder (and usually he just teases me about my morning royal hat fix!!). Thank you for sharing it Charles. You look so handsome in your hat.

  16. I’ll share one more story about the day we met Queen Elizabeth – and only because it directly relates to Royal Hats. The occasion where we met the Queen et al was a service of thanksgiving celebrating the restoration of St. George’s Chapel (we contributed to the fund). We sat literally <20' from the entire Royal Family sans the Prince of Wales (this was before Diana died) and perpendicular to them so we looked directly in their faces the entire service. The Queen, of course, was wearing a hat. When we made our way into the reception in the State Rooms of Windsor Castle and met the Queen she was without hat. Makes sense, of course, since she was now permanently inside the castle. The fun thing about this encounter and how it relates to Royal Hats – after we met the Queen she turned away from me but stood directly in front of me. She is significantly shorter than me so I essentially looked down directly on the top of her head. You know how when your grandmother took a nap and ended up with a "rat's nest" in the back of her hair? I looked down at Her Majesty The Queen and I saw one grand rat's nest! It made me love her even more! Just goes to show you, wearing a Royal Hat can be difficult business!

  17. Charles, Cole Porter said it best; “You’re the top . . .” Your magnificent topper is better than a Bendel bonnet!
    Chicago is now home to a wonderful women’s hat shop, originally based out of Cincinnati, where Mrs. Jimbo purchased MANY hats some 20 years ago. We really miss Chapeau Creations!

  18. This is an amazing story and now I have an idea of what I need to do the next time I get to London (which is who knows when unfortunately). Many many thanks Charles for sharing your knowledge and wonderful encounters in England!

  19. So admire your tenacity to find the right hat! Charles, you prove here again that there is nothing more handsome than a man in morning dress with a silk hat.

    So good to see this piece on hats that don’t usually get any attention. Well done.

  20. This was so interesting and I read every word. Wow! I always thought these silk hats would be prone to fingerprints and gathering dust outside. How do you clean your hat Charles and keep it looking so good?

    • Care is, of course, important to maintain the hat. First, it is stored in the hat box upside down (crown goes down into the hole in the box) in a cool, dry place. Moths are a problem (they like the heavy wool on the underside of the brim) so a cedar closet is ideal. Storing the hat upside down ensures there is no pressure on the crown of the hat as the hat is essentially hanging in the box by its brim. Secondly, for minor blemishes (fingerprints or minor scuffs) you use the felt pad that is pictured with the hat and box. For best results you heat the pad on the bottom of a hot iron and then use the heated pad to smooth the silk, with the grain of the nap (you can see this demonstrated in the second video attached to the blog post). Thirdly, occasionally you take the hat in to be professionally polished. The hatter then uses heat and various tools to smooth the silk in such a way as to give it the amazing luster that is only possible with the heavy silk (there is actually no colored polish used). Immediately after polishing the hat literally shines in the light. And the hatter looks for a very distinct line of light going up the side of the crown. The more distinct the line, the better the polishing. Amazingly, it is said a gentleman can wear his hat in the rain and it will have no ill effect on the hat. Thankfully I’ve never had to test this claim as the five occasions I’ve attended Royal Ascot the days were wondrously rain free.

  21. What a wonderful story – thank you so much for sharing. Just the other day I perused the vintage clothing section of smaller ebay like-platform and I noticed several top-hats (sometimes with boxes). I’m afraid to say that they are mostly sold for carnival and very often they do not survive for long in that usage. Now I feel a strong urge to return, check if they are made of silk, buy them all and create a top-hat asylum.

    • It is very difficult to buy a hat directly from eBay. The primary issue is fit – who knows who measured the hat and is the size quoted the actual size of the hat? I was fortunate to connect with the man who posted the hat for sale and was able to meet him in person in his shop. From there you know the rest of the story.

  22. Wow – so many questions!? How on earth were you invited to the Garter Service? You can’t just say ‘we were accommodated at Windsor Castle’ and let that one go by! And who did you meet? I’m sure discretion has to reign, but damn I’m curious!

    Sure you both had an amazing time!

    • James, that is a very good question. I am very close friends with a man who served as a canon at St. George’s Chapel for 30+ years (sadly, now retired). Through him I was invited to multiple events, including Garter twice. In some ways better than the Garter service was one visit where we were invited to a reception in the State Rooms of Windsor Castle and met Lady Thatcher, Prince Edward, Princess Anne (very good story attached to that meeting), and Queen Elizabeth. What a morning! We’ve also been accommodated in the castle for three visits. Nothing like pulling up to the gates of Windsor Castle in a livery car and the guard responding to the driver, “Mr. Stanford? We’ve been waiting for him. Drive in.” I’m very fortunate for sure.

      • Charles, I’m dying to hear the very good story about meeting Princess Anne. Please, please, please do tell!!

        There aren’t really words to say how beautiful your hats are. It’s a crying shame they are the last of their kind.

      • LOL Janae! We were at the reception mentioned above, had just met Lady Thatcher and the Queen, so moved deeper into the room (I was honestly afraid if I hung around the Queen too long I might be asked to scramble). Standing in the room I saw the Princess Royal coming toward us. Rather than step out of her way, I decided to stand my ground which ensured she would have to speak to me. As PA came to me she said hello and, like they all do, the first question she asked me was something along the lines of, “how did you get invited to this?” I responded that we were the Americans in attendance. She responded to me that “there are lots of Americans here.” My retort? “But we’re the two Americans you need to meet.” With that she turned toward me and said, “you’re cheeky, aren’t you?” I smiled and said, “yes ma’am, I probably am.” We then had a lovely 15 minute conversation and, as I’m wont to do, as our conversation became more animated my Southern accent rose along with the conversation. As I mentioned, we had a very lovely conversation with laughter and smiles. Later that afternoon my friend who was hosting us said he was in the reception with a colleague and the Princess Royal walked up to them and said, “okay, which of you is hosting the two tall Americans?” My friend was of course mortified to wonder what I’d done (he knew it was me and not my husband – I’m the cheeky one!). He said, “the Princess Royal, just like her mother, loves to mimic people she meets at events and finds interesting. She looked at me and proceeded to quote you (mimicking your Southern accent), ‘I’ve never been to anything like this before.’ And then she laughed thinking of your conversation.” I felt pretty pleased with myself that I was the one she was mimicking.

  23. Thanks Charles (Chicago Chuck) for sharing this marvellous story! You look so dapper in your top hat. What a shame so many skills and workmanship has been lost due to so-called modernisation! Thanks for the videos HatQueen, they were very informative.

    • Your anecdotes are fabulous! I’ve only met Anne once, at a charity do. Having been primed to say HRH then Ma’am to rhyme with Ham, I got engrossed in conversatio when I felt a tap on my shoulder and she was standing behind me. I was thrown off by the spin sugar hair so just blurted out ‘Hello, lovely to meet you’. So that went well…

  24. Your smile says it all Charles!! You look very pleased with yourself and why not. Everyone knows that feeling of looking great and no wonder you went to all that trouble. Thankyou for all the background info too, a most interesting and enjoyable read. I just have to know though Charles….. are you a Scorpio by any chance?? All that sleuthing and digging and research! Good job!! Thanks.

    • Nope, not a Scorpio. I’m a cusp between Leo and Virgo, but I really don’t know much about signs. If it weren’t for the internet all of this would have been much more difficult.

  25. Oh that was a treat, Charles! Thank you for sharing that adventure. You look wonderful in your hat, there is no comparison to the hired one. I hope you have many occasions to wear it too.

  26. You look wonderful in that hat! thanks for sharing your story. Now I want an antique silk hat and traveling case!

  27. You look good in the first hat Charles but you could pass for a full-on member of the royal family in the silk hat! I never noticed the difference between felt top hats and silk top hats. There’s no comparison. Now every time I see a silk top hat I’ll wonder what story its history tells.

    Thank you!

    • It has been fun learning about the hats. I’ve walked up to scores of strangers (women and men) and complimented them on their hat and have had wonderful conversations because of that. One of the greatest was when I approached a man in his 20s and I complimented him on his hat. He looked up with tears in his eyes and shared with me that he just received the hat from his recently deceased grandfather and he was so proud to have it and thankful it fit him. He was so appreciative that I noticed the hat and spoke to him because it gave him reason to share the story and remember his grandfather. Priceless moment.

  28. Love a dapper top hat! Never owned one but hey one can dream right? Great post. Thanks for sharing your hat Chuck. She’s a beaut.

  29. WOW! I had no idea that silk hats could never be made again. I always wondered why they looked so shiny and now I know. Your hat is SO awesome Charles and you look super handsome in it!!!

    PS Can I be your date to Ascot next year?

    • In the pictures there are two top hats for men, with two leather cases for them and no women hats, so I understand his partner might also be a gentleman.

      • Yes, my partner (now husband) is also a gentleman. But, HatQueen and Gigi, that means we can date all the women we want! 🙂

      • Just a bit of teasing, Emese. Working with Charles on this post, I sense he is a very generous and entertaining fellow who I would love to spend a day at the races getting to know.

        As for dates, this post seems to have done the impossible- piquing my husband’s interest in both silk top hats and a day at the races. I suppose I am now even further indebted to Charles!

      • Oh, I’m happy for you 🙂
        So, if you don’t have anythying against dating women, count me in the line of possible partners for a Windsor castle visit, or an Ascot outing! I like very much wearing hats, so that won’t be a problem.

      • Maybe we should organize a group outing to Royal Ascot. You can ALL be my dates! I’d likely be the most popular guy at Ascot. I’m planning on attending 2016 so come along.

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