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Swellboy on… top hats

Extolling the virtues of this versatile and elegant piece of a gentleman’s wardrobe

Swellboy on… top hats

Image: Brijesh Patel

December 15 2012
Nick Foulkes

I recently dilated on the subject of sportswear (as distinct from games kit), and I realised a long-held ambition in that field, with an addition to my wardrobe that corrected a deficiency truly terrible to contemplate. I came across an old silk top hat (complete with a leather hatbox plastered with British Rail luggage-van labels and a pair of white spats) at the local antique textiles and vintage clothes fair that is held regularly at Hammersmith Town Hall.

A silk top hat is a wonderful thing, a visitor from a past age, and nowhere is this more eloquently articulated than in Orwell’s 1984. It is by far my favourite passage, although for a while at school I used to scribble the words “Victory Gin” on the quarter bottles of supermarket spirits I was wont to smuggle in. The top hat enters the narrative when Winston is doing some research into the old days and heads off to a “prole” pub to get some oral history from a few old-timers. He asks in particular about the “very few people, only a few thousands – the capitalists, they were called – who were rich and powerful. They owned everything that there was to own. They lived in great gorgeous houses with 30 servants, they rode about in motorcars and four-horse carriages, they drank champagne, they wore top hats…”

At the mention of the top hat the old codger perks up quite noticeably. “‘Top ’ats!’ says the man in an accent that sounds like broad music-hall Cockney. ‘Funny you should mention ’em. The same thing come into my ’ead only yesterday, I dono why. I was jest thinking, I ain’t seen a top ’at in years. Gorn right out, they ’ave. The last time I wore one was at my sister-in-law’s funeral. And that was… well, I couldn’t give you the date, but it must’a been 50 years ago. Of course it was only ’ired for the occasion, you understand.’”

“‘It isn’t very important about the top hats,’ said Winston patiently.” But the old man disagrees and once started on the subject a torrent of memory is undammed, including the recollection of the time he was knocked into the street by a drunken and, yes, top-hatted, capitalist. “‘It was Boat Race night – terribly rowdy they used to get on Boat Race night – and I bumps into a young bloke on Shaftesbury Avenue. Quite a gent, ’e was – dress shirt, top ’at, black overcoat.’”

I can’t pretend to be a gentleman, but I did feel that my current top hat, while serviceable, lacked the finesse of the real thing, but now standing in splendid position outside my bedroom is the hat box containing my new – by which I mean really rather old – top ’at. Of course, I have to be selective about where I use it; apparently the first man to wear a top hat in a built-up area, one John Hetherington who went for a stroll along the Strand in one in the 1790s, was taken into custody because of the outcry at the shiny cylindrical contraption on his head: women swooned, children wept, dogs began to bark and one child got a broken arm in the near riot that ensued. So, much as I love it, it might look a little out of place when I’m doing the Christmas shopping in Westfield – but as an item of sportswear it doubles as a splendid piece of polite dress. I could go straight from the races to a wedding, funeral or Buckingham Palace garden party (not that I am likely to be asked to one of those) without adjusting my dress in the slightest – not something that you could say about a football strip.

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Hats