Another Royal Ascot has been and gone and, this time, I made the wise decision to expensively upgrade my top hat from the rather poor example I wore in previous years.
Top hats come in a variety of different shapes, sizes and styles, and at least two colours. I wouldn't claim to be an expert on top hats, but here is some general guidance which I have picked up and which may be useful.
Black or Grey?
At Ascot, there is probably a slight slant towards black top hats, but there are still plenty of grey ones to be seen. Grey hats may be slightly more casual, but I am not aware of any event (with the possible exception of a strangely formal funeral) at which it would be unacceptable to wear a grey top hat. Grey top hats are a must with a matching grey morning suit, but otherwise the choice is entirely yours. My own preference is for a black hat, partly because good ones have a particular beautiful shine that grey hats lack, and partly because a black hat can also be worn with evening tails. Not that it is easy to do so without looking like a broadway chorus-singer, but it's a nice option to have.
Grey top hats are generally a little cheaper, it has to be said.
This is where it gets more tricky. You have essentially three options in the 'serious' top hat range, by which I mean not a costume hat picked up for a fiver on a market stall.
These can be made from fur felt or wool, and could be hand-made and quite expensive, or available for as little as £30. The key thing is that the black or grey covering has a matt finish, and a slightly furry texture. This looks fine in grey, but is a bit cheap-looking in black, and lacks the shine that is the hallmark of the proper Edwardian topper.
This is the next step up, and is what you will find on all decent quality new top hats sold by anyone from Moss Bros (for about £200) to Lock the Hatter (for closer to £400). In between, Ede and Ravenscroft, Hackett, Bates the Hatter and numerous other places also sell them. Most are hand-made and the visible difference between them is minimal. Melusine, when carefully brushed, has a shine that is close to that of silk, and this is as good as you are likely to be able to get from a new top hat.
The top of the heap in top hat terms. Edwardian top hats were made of silk, and there are plenty scattered around second hand shops for a few hundred pounds or less. The issue is that larger hat sizes tend to be rarer, and therefore much more expensive. Some hatters, such as Lock, will do you a refurbished and refitted silk hat but, depending on your head size and the provenance of the hat, this is likely to set you back several thousand pounds. That said, a good silk hat does look fantastic, and is clearly a cut above even the best Melusine ones.
If you're likely to wear morning dress more than once or twice a year, owning a top hat is worth the investment. Even if you're not, it's a great thing to own and will give you a good excuse to seek out opportunities to wear it.