It was the family squabble that destroyed an entire industry. Back in the 1950s, two British brothers inherited a factory in Lyon—well, one of them did. Nicholas and Bobby Smith’s family made silks, a fabric for which the French town was renowned; theirs were the sole remaining looms that could weave the high-grade silk needed to make a top hat.
Nicholas had been disinherited in favor of his brother, and, piqued at the slight, took the ultimate revenge: he trashed every loom, rendering them useless. His senseless act of vandalism did more than wreck the Smiths’ finances, though. A few bales trickled out for the next few years—already woven, and in storage—but soon hatmakers could no longer source the key material for an Ascot-ready topper, rendering the rarefied product effectively extinct.
“There is no such thing as a new silk top hat. You can’t make them anymore,” explains Jayesh Vaghela. “I wish I could work out the method of making that silk plush.”
The 49-year-old Vaghela is master hatter at Lock & Co., the world’s oldest hatmaker. Founded in 1676, it holds a warrant to make hats for the Prince of Wales and, until recently, held the warrant to make hats for the late Duke of Edinburgh. Vaghela and his team can still make custom top hats—but only from felted merino wool. He admits that the quality pales in comparison with a vintage topper made from silk produced on the Smiths’ looms.
“At a horse-racing meet, you see a range of top hats, and you can spot a silk from miles away. It’s of that caliber: the sheen, the shape, it’s so sharp,” he sighs, noting that a silk topper is so gossamer-light that it’s effortless to wear. “They say once you have a silk, there’s nothing better.”
“There is no such thing as a new silk top hat. You can’t make them anymore.”
Vaghela keeps a stock of pristine vintage silk toppers on hand for sale. They’re often brought to Lock’s by people who stumble on them in attics or basements and have little use for a top hat in daily life. He painstakingly restores them, brushing the plush or re-lining the crown. Vintage silk toppers were produced in three different finishes, for different purposes: matte, satin, and high sheen. Matte, so sober and discreet, was the undertaker’s usual choice for a funeral cortege; high sheen was the rarest and showiest—and is now the most sought-after.
The biggest challenge vintage-loving dandies face when poring over Vaghela’s stock of silks, whatever their finish, is sizing. In the 19th century, the top hat’s heyday, men were smaller—the average Brit in the 1870s was five-foot-five when fully grown. So, too, were their heads. The result is that it’s reasonably cheap and easy to buy a topper that’s just 54 centimeters (around 21 inches) in circumference: a mint-condition one costs £650 (around $900). A couple of inches more, though—say, 60 centimeters—and it will cost almost 10 times that, at £6,000 (around $8,200). The largest Vaghela has ever encountered: a 65-centimeter model (around 25.5 inches), which he has in stock and is priced at £15,000 (around $20,600).
“I’ve only seen one or two in my time like that, and never, ever any bigger,” he explains. “The hat world is very small, so if anyone did have one bigger, we would know about it.”
The other XXL example that came across his counter sold to a man who had wandered in off the street, impromptu, keen to see if Lock’s could help him before a looming invitation to Ascot. “He thought we couldn’t possibly have his size, but I’m always up for a challenge.”
The rules of Ascot’s Royal Enclosure allow men to have hats that are either gray or black. Those two colors formed the vast majority of production, but not exclusively so. Vaghela still remembers the day when someone walked into the store and pulled out the rarest hat he’d ever seen: a white silk topper, made with Smith silk in the late 19th century.
The client asked Vaghela to polish the silk to enhance its high sheen; daunted, Jay opted for a brand-new brush for fear of transferring color from the countless black hats he’d finessed. Task successfully completed, he asked the stranger if he had interest in selling the hat—he’d already admitted it was two sizes too small for him to wear, at 58 centimeters (22.8 inches) in circumference. Still, the stranger politely demurred, before disappearing from the shop, newly pristine topper in hand. Vaghela still smarts that he didn’t think to record his contact details.
“Now I keep a record of all the people and the hats I come across,” he says, pausing. “That was once in a lifetime.”
Mark Ellwood is a New York–based writer and the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World