Tuesday, 14 October 2008

A Tale of Two Toppers

What’s that they say about London busses: you wait ages for one to come along, then three arrive in quick succession?

Well, for a very long time now I’ve been searching for my personal Holy Grail: a vintage silk top hat with a tall ‘bell’ shape and in near-perfect condition i.e. with little (if any) signs of wear to the silk. Fine ones like that are extremely rare and can easily go for four figures. (I recently tried on a renovated topper at James Lock & Co.; their price? £850).

So there I was, stuck at home with this bloody leg, aimlessly surfing e-bay and one topper caught my eye. The seller was English, a vintage shop on the South Coast (I won’t disclose their name or location just yet, for obvious reasons - see later). The size was 6 7/8s and the height at the front was an impressive 6 ¼”. But they were asking £150 as a Buy-it; a little straining at the purse for me, sadly, so I let it go. But I noticed by the close of auction no-one had bid on it.

[Technical note: I should point out: my standard hat size is (UK) 6 7/8s. But when considering buying what’s called a “hard shell” hat like a Topper or a Bowler / Coke, very often you should look to go up a size, so I might also be looking for a size 7].

Now, simultaneous to this English hat, I noticed on e-bay a German silk topper (a size 7 with a front height of 5 ½“) and in it’s original carrying box. Interestingly, I noticed that the header-listing read “Silk-Top-Hat” and I thought (hoped?) that those hyphens meant it might slip under the radar for most searches. It had a minimum bid listed of £55. So I put my maximum offer into www.auctionsniper.com and set it to snipe three seconds before close of auction, as I usually do.

While I was waiting for the German auction to finish, I e-mailed the UK seller (Lorraine) with a proposal: bearing in mind it’s so difficult to tell if a hat like this would fit me or not, and that the most I could offer at present was about £110-120, what if I transferred the money to her + postage, then she sent it to me “on approval” and if it fit, she keep the money; if it didn’t, I’d send it back to her and she’d just refund my original money.

Well, to my surprise (and relief?), Lorraine agreed, and we settled on a price of £120 + £10 postage.

The German auction finished and my hunch paid off: as it turned out there were only two bidders (including me) and I won it for…£62 (plus £15 postage).

So a few days later, Friday morning, both hats arrived in the post the same time:

- the English hat (6 7/8s with a height of 6 ¼”): a truly beautiful work of craftsmanship, barely any noticeable wear (even under a strong light) - AND with a snug perfect fit, like a bespoke pair of shoes. I love this hat.
- the German hat (size 7 with a height of 5 ½”): again perfect condition, flawless silk. Fits very well and is certainly Not “too big”. I could drop it into James Lock to have it blocked out and fitted properly (when I ask them to rest itch the four inches of inner leather headband). Other than that, it’s all just perfect.

I cannot believe my luck in landing not one, but two superb vintage silk top hats.

But what exactly is the object of this story, Ray?

Well, the next day I received an e-mail from Lorraine, the English seller: “Having read your blog and knowing that you take an interest in these sorts of things, you might like to know the exact provenance of your top hat…”.

One careful owner: it turns out that it comes from the estate of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman - a name from my childhood history lessons that suddenly came echoing down the years. [Campbell-Bannerman was born 1836, became Prime Minister of Great Britain, December 1905 until April 1908, where (I think) he died in office]. - And if it is Not C-B’s directly, it certainly belonged to his son-in-law, Major Devas.

It seems the family home (Hunton Court, near Maidstone - below) has just been sold: C-B’s uniforms had gone to a museum in Belgium and Lorraine (and her retro shop) are now handling the contents.

…Well, I’ve just given her my ‘Wants’ list and let her get on with it! (Now perhaps you’ll appreciate why I’m not telling you the name or location of this place just yet). Then Lorraine told me she’s also got C-B’s bowler hat from Mortlock & Co……[I’m sure we shall come to some arrangement].

Oh I do like my two toppers, especially the English one: it’s extraordinary to hold this near-perfect piece of work in your hands and realise it must be at last one hundred years old, and still in beautiful condition. And for all the apparent vanity that appears to come across in blogs, I’ve never really liked looking at myself in the mirror; but even I must admit, looking at my reflection wearing that topper, even I fall in love with myself all over again…

- Besides, with all that I’ve been through these last few weeks with this leg, I reckon I deserve to spoil myself!

P.S.: On Saturday - my first serious venture into town since the accident - I dropped the German hat into James Lock & Co.: they agreed it was perfect except for the 4” of sweatband that needed rest itching (they‘re charging me a bank-breaking £20 to fix it). They also agreed to block and fit it properly when I go in to collect it. And they suggested they raise the sides of the brim up just a little, to give the curved swoop down to the front and back just a little more emphasis. Oh yes, the chaps (and chapesses) of Lock definitely have ‘the eye‘.

I also bought myself a velvet pad from them (£19) for fine-brushing the silk nap - I already have a beautiful antique horse-hair brush for the first-stage brushing. [In passing, they mentioned that they actually source a lot of their old Silk Toppers from Germany: “perhaps German people these days just don’t feel they are of much use anymore“]. So, thank you, James Lock ‘Krew’: Sue and, in absentia, Patrick (day off) and Andrew (on holiday). I look forward to returning soon.


katie said...

What gorgeous finds!! Now we need to see you model them!

Anonymous said...

I myself recently got into the top hat fad, and have entered into the fold with my latest purchase of a German one as well. I'm waiting its arrival from DE land, and it will complement the Dunlap one I purcased last month for $145.

But the kicker is, I paid substantially less for the new one and it's in better shape. I acquired it for an astoundingly low sum of $69, but shipping made it about the same as the other one. I've seen the fur "christys" ones on UK ebay for about £250 /$320 new, so what you paid is more than worth it for silk.

I have no doubt these hats could be worth hundreds if not thousands more, but they're mine. I just couldn't decide which crown height would complement my wardrobe and facial structure best. The new ones that I have seen from Moss Bros and christys just don't look right (no curvature), and a felt top hat just doesn't suffice.