Swellboy on… top hats

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

Image: Brijesh Patel

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

A silk top hat is a wonderful thing, a visitor from a pastage, and nowhere is this more eloquently articulated than in Orwell’s 1984. It is by far my favourite passage, although for a while at schoolI used to scribble the words “Victory Gin” on the quarter bottles ofsupermarket spirits I was wont to smuggle in. The top hat enters the narrativewhen 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 inparticular about the “very few people, only a few thousands – the capitalists,they were called – who were rich and powerful. They owned everything that therewas to own. They lived in great gorgeous houses with 30 servants, they rodeabout in motorcars and four-horse carriages, they drank champagne, they woretop hats…”


At the mention of the top hat the old codger perks up quitenoticeably. “‘Top ’ats!’ says the man in an accent that sounds like broadmusic-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 inyears. Gorn right out, they ’ave. The last time I wore one was at mysister-in-law’s funeral. And that was… well, I couldn’t give you the date, butit must’a been 50 years ago. Of course it was only ’ired for the occasion, youunderstand.’”

“‘It isn’t very important about the top hats,’ said Winstonpatiently.” But the old man disagrees and once started on the subject a torrentof memory is undammed, including the recollection of the time he was knockedinto the street by a drunken and, yes, top-hatted, capitalist. “‘It was BoatRace night – terribly rowdy they used to get on Boat Race night – and I bumpsinto 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 finesseof the real thing, but now standing in splendid position outside my bedroom isthe hat box containing my new – by which I mean really rather old – top ’at. Ofcourse, I have to be selective about where I use it; apparently the first manto wear a top hat in a built-up area, one John Hetherington who went for astroll along the Strand in one in the 1790s, was taken into custody because ofthe 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 nearriot that ensued. So, much as I love it, it might look a little out of placewhen I’m doing the Christmas shopping in Westfield – but as an item ofsportswear it doubles as a splendid piece of polite dress. I could go straightfrom the races to a wedding, funeral or Buckingham Palace garden party (notthat I am likely to be asked to one of those) without adjusting my dress in theslightest – not something that you could say about a football strip.

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