'Like finding an Aston Martin in a barn': meet the top hat detectives sourcing vintage pieces at £12,000-a-time

Elon Musk Ascot top hat
Elon Musk recently had a vintage top hat sourced for him by Bates to wear at Ascot

Elon Musk may be the epitome of the man of the future, pumping billions into Tesla to revolutionise the car industry, as well as his very real plans to reach for the stars, but if there's one area in which he's happy to look backwards, it's his wardrobe.

That's why he was willing to pay top dollar for a centuries-old piece of kit that simply could not be made today.

Musk is one of a handful of discerning men who can - and do - spend upwards of £10,000 on a vintage top hat, a piece of Victorian headgear that, in 2019, is unlikely to be worn outside of the Royal Enclosure at Ascot (many of the men most passionate about these hats are racehorse owners).

Musk did, in fact, buy his hat for Ascot, after being invited there by Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. And if, like him, you are looking for the very best - your first port of call may well be the 122-year-old Bates Gentlemen's Hatter on London's Jermyn Street, to which the magnate beat a path when seeking out his topper.

Bates's CEO, Steven Miller (whose specialists tracked down the piece for Musk), explains: "The traditional silk top hat hasn't been produced since the 1950s.

Measuring a top hat's dimensions at Bates, the illustrious 122-year-old gentleman's hatter on Jermyn Street, London

As legend has it, the last weavers of the silk used were two brothers in Lyons who fell out spectacularly, leading one of them to destroy the looms in a fit of pique. No one has been able to produce the quality since."

The top hat became popular at the turn of the 19th century, after it was created by Middlesex hatter George Dunnage in 1793. Bates has a network of specialist traders scouring Europe for surviving examples dating back to the 1800s.

"These hats have a price tag of anything up to £12,000," says Miller. "The best pieces are very difficult to find, but we manage to source up to 10 a year. We look for a six-inch-tall crown as these are more noble - they may well crop up in the dusty corners of an attic of a French chateau. It's like finding a vintage Aston Martin in a barn. Those with five-inch crowns were more for town."

Ideally, they will still be in their original hat boxes. "It is even better if we can trace the provenance," explains Miller, who has a waiting list of up to three years for his finds. "We can sometimes source photographs of the actual pieces being worn by the original owners."

There's no guarantee you will be lucky, however. The biggest problem is sizing, because 21st-century heads are a lot bigger than those of our 19th-century predecessors. Indeed, the fact that I take a size-63 hat means that I am unlikely to be donning a Victorian titfer any time soon. "We managed to source a size 62 for a client last year, but anything larger than that is almost impossible to find," Miller admits.

Mr and Mrs Ronald Armstrong Jones, wearing formal dress as they attend Royal Ascot, circa 1945 Credit: Getty Images/Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He insists that those lucky men who are less big-headed shouldn't baulk at the price. "These are really works of art," he says, "and things of great beauty. Look after your hat and it will be a very good investment."

But don't despair, because around the corner at the oldest hat shop in the world, Lock & Co on St James's Street, master hatter Jay Vaghela loves a challenge and aims to provide as full a size-range of vintage toppers as possible, mainly sourced in the UK.

"We recently managed to find a size 64 for a client," he says, "though I doubt I will see another in my lifetime." It's unsurprising that their scope is so vast: founded in 1676, Lock & Co has created hats for several generations of the Royal family, as well as the bicorne that Admiral Nelson wore at the Battle of Trafalgar.

It can also supply vintage top hats in all three different plushes - the description of the finish and pile of the fabric used - from matt to satin and silk, with the last being the top end. Again, Ascot racegoers are perhaps the biggest market, and while the strict Royal Enclosure dress code permits the wearing of a grey top hat, the majority of vintage top hats are black.

The exterior of Bates, which supplies rare Victorian toppers as well as modern hats

"We do, however, occasionally come across unusual old bespoke pieces. We have a copper-coloured hat in the store," says Vaghela, "but unfortunately it isn't in very good condition. If it was pristine it would be a real collector's piece. A client once brought in a white top hat that had been passed down his family to be serviced. I was almost too scared to polish it, but it ended up looking amazing."

It isn't just devotees of the turf who invest in a vintage top hat. "For some men, it is simply a desire to own something so beautiful," says Vaghela, "but we even have requests from funeral directors and the parents of head boys at certain public schools, who are allowed to wear a top hat as part of their uniform. They are also popular as 21st-birthday presents, which is ideal as by that age your head size is fixed."

Vaghela advises that whether you ultimately choose old or new, the most important thing is the look. "It's all about the balance - you should see the man and the hat as one."

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip attending Ascot races in an open top carriage, 1970 Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Whatever your choice, with an investment at this level, Lock & Co offers a full after-care package as part of the service, so it's a safe bet that your hat will be brushed and polished to perfection for Ascot.

After all, you don't want to let the side down when Her Majesty is present, even if she is glued to her binoculars, hoping for a repeat of her landmark 2013 Gold Cup win. And if that isn't an excuse to throw your hat in the air, what is? Just be careful to catch it.

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