Guest Post: Hat Exchange

I’m so pleased to welcome longtime reader and contributor, Charles (known here as ChicagoChuck), back to Royal Hats, to share a wonderful story connected with his visit to Royal Ascot this year!

Trading in our Toppers

When my partner Bob and I purchased our top hats from Steve in 2012, he mentioned that if we ever wanted to trade them in for a nicer/higher quality top hat, he’d be happy to do that.  One of the things I always wondered, however, was what made one better quality than another?  Would I be able to notice the difference?  Ever since Steve mentioned that idea, I was very interested in the possibility.

Royal Hats

Charles’ original antique silk top hat

 As we were planning our trip to London in June 2018 that would include three days at Royal Ascot, I set aside time to visit Steve.  I contacted him and reminded him of his previous offer  – he responded that we were welcome to visit and offered to show us any hats he had and explain the differences between them.  Of course, keep in mind that at any given time he has only so many hats in his inventory. Because silk hats have not been manufactured for 60+ years, all the hats he has are older and vary in quality and sizes.

We arrived in London early on the Thursday morning before Ascot and made our way to Steve’s “shop” by early afternoon that same day.  Shop is in quotation marks because he basically operates out of a warehouse/garage-type space in East London.Both Steve and another man, Paul, were in his shop (as well as a couple of people who assist Steve in refurbishing hats).  Paul is the public-facing person for the enterprise and was preparing to deliver several hats purchased for Royal Ascot.  Paul was full of interesting stories, some related to members of the royal family.

Story 1 – Mike Tindall’s silk top hat: Mike Tindall purchased a silk topper a few years ago and it was tricky getting him fitted because he has a large head and there simply aren’t very many silk top hats in larger sizes.  They found Mike a hat and he purchased it and wore it a few times.  But what happened next shook everyone – at one of the times Mike was wearing his hat he put it on a chair and someone sat on it and flattened it out!  Paul isn’t sure if the hat we now see Mike Tindall wearing is the same hat that has been refurbished or another silk topper.

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Mike Tindall in black top hats that appear different- Ascot 2017 and Ascot 2015

Story 2 – I also asked about Prince William’s hat – what makes it look like it doesn’t fit him.  Steve said the hat’s scale is wrong for Prince William.  Because William’s head and face is so narrow he should have a hat that correlates to his face shape, one that is narrower in the body of the hat.  He doesn’t know where Prince William obtained his hat but assumes it might be a family hat because he feels that if he’d purchased a hat specifically for himself the hatter would have steered him to a better scaled hat.

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The Duke of Cambridge in his short-crowned top hat at Ascot 2017 and Ascot 2016

Story 3 – Both Steve and Paul agreed that Prince Harry seems to not care so much for the top hat outings because they agree that his hat never looks polished with a nice sheen.  Maybe the new Duchess will change things for him.  *Note – I had this conversation before Royal Ascot and, as many of you probably noticed from Opening Day, Prince Harry’s hat looked a bit more polished than previous wearings.  Maybe the new Duchess did tell him to polish his topper!

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Duke of Sussex’s hat looking slightly more polished at Ascot 2018 than Ascot 2015

Story 4 – Steve said he worked on the Duke of Edinburgh’s black top hat not too long ago but it was in awful shape and he thinks that’s why he doesn’t seem to wear it as often as he used to.  Not going to buy a new one at this point!

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Duke of Edinburgh at Ascot in 2016 and a garden party in July 2017. Notice the visible wear under the hatband.

Now back to my story of trading in our hats – Bob went first.  Steve actually had two or three hats in Bob’s size that were nicer than his current hat.  He pointed out the differences, primarily finer quality silk that, consequently, could be polished to a higher shine.  Also, often these old hats have ripples or bumps under the silk that are noticeable.  The finest hats are as smooth as silk (pun intended!) with no visible marks or ripples.  Bob found himself a very fine hat and traded his in accordingly.


Bob and Charles’ new silk hats on the first day of Royal Ascot

Then came my turn.  Steve really had only one hat in my size that he said was finer quality than my current hat.  While it was nicer than my current hat it was not as noticeably finer than the difference between Bob’s two hats.  But, dammit, I wanted to trade in my hat!  So trade it in I did.  The upside is the new hat is 1) definitely finer than my previous hat; 2) fits me much better.  This hat truly fits my head perfectly.  And it is significantly lighter in weight than my previous hat, which Steve attributed to the finer quality.  The hat’s original leather band on the interior could not be re-used but it was marked 1915 so we know the age/dating of my hat.  Interesting to think I’m wearing a hat of a man who wore it over 100 years ago.    And, at the three outings at Royal Ascot I had multiple men mention my “proper topper.”  I had two different men challenge me on how could I possibly have such a fine top hat given that I’m an American.  They just couldn’t understand it!  And one of the men was equally impressed that I knew and sang the words of “God Save the Queen” as her carriage passed us by.


Bob and Charles looking most handsome on Day 2 (fantastic tartan trousers Charles!) and Day 3 of Royal Ascot

Now that I’ve learned a good bit about top hats it was interesting to look at the many, varied hats one sees during a day at Royal Ascot.  I’m quite proud that I, even a lowly American, can make my way around the Royal Enclosure wearing such a fine example of a gentleman’s silk topper!


Charles- you do realize that your process to find a silk top hat is exactly the same as what royal men go through?! Or rather, SOME royal men… if only they all had hats that fit as well as yours and were in the same state of excellent repair. Thank you for sharing the latest development in your wonderful millinery adventure. Your hats are truly treasures. 
Photos from Getty as indicated and from Charles’ personal library, none of which may be copied or replicated without written permission. 

36 thoughts on “Guest Post: Hat Exchange

  1. Very enjoyable post, Charles. We have learned so much about men’s hats from what you have shared in this and previous posts!

    I would like your opinion, since the subject of Harry “polishing” (or not) his hat came up here. It is frequently assumed that neither William or Harry employ a valet, because 1) they lead much more modern lives, and 2) Harry – for now – lives in a relatively tiny cottage at Kensington Palace.

    I could see that for everyday wear. How much trouble could it be to keep multiple blue suits? But what about formal and ceremonial? Somehow I don’t see William – or even a maid, frankly – steaming and picking lint off Garter robes each June. Would the family employ a person (or team) to keep and maintain all those uniforms, robes, and hats – plumed, bearskin, and top hats – for multiple family members? Then just deliver the correct kit from a central location and dress them for each event?

    • My only insight into how much assistance the younger royals might accept is through my friend who is a retired Canon at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. I do know from him that the Garter robes, for example, are cared for with utmost attention and are laid out for each of the Garter knights and then afterwards packed away carefully awaiting the next year’s service. Even my friend has a special cope that is used for the Garter service that is included in the packing and unpacking. So one has to expect that process happens in various ways with the various kit that is required for other purposes as well.

      Harry’s hat drives me batty and I don’t understand why someone doesn’t insist he have it polished (and by polishing it refers to the hat being slightly heated such that the silk is able to be brushed where it lies completely flat and the nap of the fabric is all going in the same direction, creating a sheen – no actual polish is used as one would for shoes, for example. Sometimes the hat’s fabric is dampened as well). There is also a small velvet pillow, called a mouse, that is often included with the purchase of a silk top hat. You use the mouse to give your hat a last polish before setting out for the day. The silk fabric’s nap is always in a counter-clockwise direction so you use the mouse to ensure there are no areas on the hat where a bit is out of line. To make the mouse more effective you can heat it slightly on the face of an iron and then use the heated mouse on the hat, simulating the professional polishing. If you ever see a photo of the Earl of Wessex in his top hat you’ll see a beautiful example of how a well-cared for hat is supposed to look.

  2. What a delightful story! I’m inspired to take a trip to Royal Ascot myself, though as a Kentucky girl who has attended races all her life, I still haven’t made it to the Derby, so I ought to start there.

    • Hahaha – me too. I’ve been in KY 28 years, but I’ve never been to the Derby. I rather prefer Keeneland anyway. More elegant, less circus.

      • For what it is worth, I have a very good friend who has attended both the Kentucky Derby and Royal Ascot. She was a VIP guest of one of the liquor companies at the Derby so her experience was absolutely First Class. And she attended Ascot in the Royal Enclosure. She said Ascot is head and shoulders above the Derby in her opinion. But a part of that is that there is nowhere else, no matter how First Class it might present itself, like the Royal Enclosure, where everyone admitted follows a very strict sartorial protocol. And let’s not forget who arrives each day in a carriage procession – nothing can top that! When the procession passes by, and you are so close you feel you can almost touch the carriages, it seems as if you are on a movie set, except that it is actually happening and you’re a part of it – magical!

  3. What a splendid blog post. Like the others, I was eagerly awaiting to hear abou this year’s adventures at Ascot. Looking forward to more reports of your visits to England and Ascot. I remember reading about your purchases of trousers, did you do a post on your first purchase of vest and jacket? What pushed you into the purchase? Ascot, or something else?

    • I purchased our original morning attire using online shopping, purchasing from companies in the UK. Then I had the various items tailored here in Chicago. But this trip we didn’t only trade up our top hats – Bob bought a new morning coat and trousers, as well as a new waistcoat (see Opening Day photo), I bought a new waistcoat and cufflinks (Opening Day), and I bought two new ties in Chicago expressly for Ascot (Day 2 and Ladies Day). I decided to purchase rather than rent because I knew they would be much more comfortable and hoped we’d have a need for them in future years, which has turned out to be true.

  4. Great post, Chicago Chuck! I’m so intrigued by the warehouse setting you describe because I’d imagine that merchandise this posh would be sold out of a suitably posh location. Do you suppose the VIP customers have the hats brought to them?

    Loved the inside story on the royal gentlemen and their hats, but the best part was the photos of you and Bob in your impeccable finery.

    • RE VIP customers – I’m pretty sure that’s where Paul comes in. As I mentioned in my post, he had several hats he was about to deliver so I assume those were for gentlemen who might not want to trek to Steve’s interesting location. I’d hypothesize that Paul might make multiple visits for someone who is interested in purchasing a hat – initial measuring of the head with the conformatuer, taking a selection of hats, etc. Much more efficient to go directly to Steve (and I bet cheaper than having Paul as the intermediary).

      • Aha, that makes sense.

        I had to look up “conformateur,” and I’m glad I did. It’s an important word for our Royal Hats vocabulary!

  5. Charles and Bob, you did us proud. What a wonderful peek at the inner world of men’s Ascot hats! Thank you, ChicagoChuck!

    • Who knows Baxter? I’m going on what Steve and Paul told me. Either way, if Mike Tindall bought a hat (whether original or replacement) from Oliver Brown he paid too much. I went in to the Royal Ascot shop and over to the top hats Oliver Brown had on display out of curiosity. A man was trying on a lovely topper and was being heavily encouraged by the saleswoman to take the plunge – at a low, low price of £4,000! It was all I could do not to jump in to the conversation and tell him I know a man where he can get an equally nice hat for about 25% of that amount. But fortunately the gentleman took off the hat and said he’d have to think about it. The saleswoman did compliment me on my “fine topper.”

  6. Thank you Chuck, for continuing your story and your sharing photos of your new hats! You and Bob look very dapper and I hope you wear the new hats in health and happiness. I am so much more interested in the men’s top hats since you shared your experiences! I admit I gasped when I read that Mike’s hat got sat on. I wonder how often that happens when people have had a few too many Pimm’s 😀 The one he has now seems to fit his head better so maybe it is a different one.

    • We met a man in 2016 who was wearing a gorgeous hat. I complimented him on it and we got to talking and he had purchased his hat from Steve (small world!) He shared with me that on one evening after a pretty wild day of adventure he woke up the next morning in the bushes in front of his house and couldn’t find his hat – because it was UNDER him! He took it back to Steve and Steve was able to refurbish it to its former glory. Amazing! His wife, God bless her, just laughed while he was telling me the story.

  7. Charles, thank you so much for this story continuing the adventure of your and Bob’s top hats! Am I correct in recalling that the reason these hats can’t be made anymore is something to do with the type of silk? It seems unfortunate that with all the modern technology we have, that no one can figure out how to return to old techniques!

    • RE the silk looms – story goes that the only looms that made this heavy type of silk were owned by one family in France. They made all the silk for hats no matter where they were manufactured. There was a falling out in the family which resulted in destroying the looms. Because the looms were so specific and the market for that type of silk so small no new looms have been built. So no more silk for top hats.

      • The Huguenots (French Refugees)brought silk weaving to Spitalfields in London and they have a fascinating history ! if you’re interested in finding out more about the silk looms and the waxing and waning of fortunes you might start at Old Bailey on line … but I must warn you the research is an absolute rabbit hole !!! 😊

      • Thanks for repeating the story of the silk looms, Charles! As a weaver myself, I can’t help but feel that someone ought to be able to work backwards from a sample of the original fabric to reconstruct a loom that weaves to the correct specifications. Of course, one such loom operated by one person would not produce much quantity, so it would be quite dear, but wouldn’t it be wonderful just for the challenge of it if it could be done!

  8. Thank you Charles for this fascinating inside look at top hats! As a fellow lowly American, I had no idea that silk top hats were no longer being made! It really is so interesting that they are all refurbished to be used again. And your tartan pants are fantastic!

  9. I dare not show this to my husband, Charles, or we will have to pay a visit to Steve! Thank you for this informative and most interesting article. Your hats are so very handsome.

  10. Very nice posting Charles! Thank you so much for the pictures and stories of your “tale of the topper” quest. You and your partner look wonderful and I too am now paying much more attention to the royal men and their hats and sartorial splendor. Good job and thank you!

  11. Interesting article. I am wondering about the height of the hats. Do they vary? Prince Philip’s seems taller than the other hats. Perhaps it is just the picture.

    • Yes, as mentioned in the article, the crown of top hats varies in height and width. Certain crown shapes are more flattering on different face and head shapes (read Story #2 on Prince William).

  12. I’ve been looking forward to this post since Ascot, and it didn’t disappoint! Very interesting, as are all of your posts. You both look very dapper. And I adore the tartan trousers!

  13. Never have I had such hat envy! Another great story from you Charles, and I’m so happy to finally see some photos you showing off; I especially love your orange waistcoat, but each day you and Bob were indeed very dapper and represented us Americans very well. Thanks a million for sharing it all with us! One day I hope to find a nice top hat for myself.

  14. You two gentlemen look so very handsome in your morning suits and those fabulous hats ! Thank you so very much for sharing!!

  15. Thank you, Chuck, for sharing your very interesting experience and stories. They are both educational and entertaining. You and Steve look very handsome in your proper toppers. This blog never fails to make me smile.

  16. What fascinating stories, Chuck! I am ashamed to say, that, as a flippant sort of woman, I used to regard gentlemen’s hats as mere adjuncts to the glories of the ladies’ Ascot wear. But that has all changed, in large part, thanks to you. Closer observation makes me see some of the differences you point out so well. I am old enough to remember my parents always wearing hats when they left the house – or so it would seem. I have a charming photo of me and my late mother watching a Santa Claus parade. Mum is wearing a delightful grey calot, a fitted blue coat and smart suede gloves. Sadly, now, my daughter wears jeans and a woolly toque to take her daughter to this parade. (I won’t say what I wore when it was my turn, but let’s say it has been an evolution.) Hats “finish” an outfit, whether you are a lady or a gentleman. Keep up the good work, Chuck, and know you have fans.

  17. You are indeed looking very distinguished Charles and so is Bob, with lovely fresh flowers in your lapels, nice details I never knew that these hats aren’t made anymore. Steve seems like a really nice person, he should write a book with your help Charles!

  18. You two look FABULOUS honestly Chuck !!! and I’m so pleased you were both able to get the hats of your dreams !! (well close enough 😉 )
    When I was doing the genealogy of my husband’s family – I found out his grandfather was born in New York and his father had a tailors shop there … when he was 15 years old he emigrated to England (that’s backwards isn’t it ?) but then … I found out that he was “a hatter to the King “… (Edward vii ) at first I thought that he really was THE hatter to the King but I’m afraid I couldn’t get any further than that .. .I wrote to all the hatters that were still in business that I found in the old directories even the regimental outfitters but no luck ! … I have to suppose that he really did work for a hatter who was by appointment to the King …. but we had great excitement in the family for a little while there ! 😊

  19. You both look awesome! The hats are truly magnificent, and so are you, gentlemen.
    Such a shame these hats aren’t being made any more. In the theatre in France where I worked for many years, we had quite a lot of old silk toppers in the millinery department but most of them were rather on the small side for the heads of modern actors. It was always quite a challenge to make them fit.
    I have a silk top hat that belonged to an elderly gentleman in my family and I keep it in its special box, with its slim, curved wooden brush along side. Hasn’t been worn by anybody for years though.

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