The stiff, shiny, black silk top hat is about as traditional as it gets. Initially, they were made out of beaver fur before production switched to a fine silk plush.
Sir Henry Cecil in Vintage, Shiny Black Silk Top Hat
Unfortunately, the last manufacturer of silk plush in France discontinued the production of this material years ago, and hence genuine silk plush top hats are becoming increasingly rare, especially in hat size 7 ½ (60) and up. Men’s heads were simply smaller during the height of their popularity. At Royal Ascot, a pristine top hat in a large size can fetch up to $20,000!
It is very difficult to find a perfectly fitting top hat because unlike a regular, soft felt hat, it is hard and stiff.
Brushing the Nap of the Top Hat Silk Plush
This means you need to find a top hat in both the right size and in the correct shape. Personally, I have a top hat in size 60 long oval. However, I brought it to Mr. Beermann in Hamburg, Germany, to reshape it for me. However, there are only very few craftsman left who can perform the work, and one of them is Patey in London.
In order to figure out your desired top hat size and shape, initially you need to wear a conformateur. This device looks a little bit
like a top hat itself, and it consists of several vertical and flexible metal parts, that all point to the top. There you will have to add a piece of paper to determine what your head size and shape will be. Originally, the conformateur was patented in the 1850’s and today it is difficult to find them in perfect working order. Personally, I have only seen models from Allie Maillard Ainé Paris and it seems like most available conformateurs are made by them.
A good top hat provider should have a conformateur.
The Young Prince of Wales in Stiff Silk Plush Top Hat
Prince William Wearing a Black Top Hat
Throughout history, top hats have come in various shapes and sizes. Today, most top hats have vertical sides and measure about 5.5” in height. Taller hats are rarer than shorter ones. Also, top hats that get wider on top are likewise rarer than those with vertical sides. All styles are correct with a morning coat, and it merely comes down to personal preference and your budget.
If you wish to know the details about where to buy, care for and polish a top hat, I can only recommend reading Charles Rupert Tsua’s excellent guide.
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