Johnny Depp does it. So do Brad Pitt, Adrien Brody, Matthew McConaughey, Justin Timberlake and David Beckham. David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese do it too. Even the young Barack Obama used to do it. What? Wear a summer hat, of course – and not just a baseball cap or a floppy golfing hat, but a proper straw hat with a brim, a crown and a hat band. It’s the coolest accessory of the summer, once the hot weather starts.
“The last three years have seen men take a much greater interest in proper hats,” says Jean-Luc Guitard, general manager at Bates, on London’s Jermyn Street. “It’s all down to media coverage of celebrities. Even Jude Law in the Sherlock Holmes movie was good for our business.”
Mark Stafford, deputy manager of Ede & Ravenscroft’s Gracechurch Street branch agrees: “This is the second year in which we are seeing hat sales increasing. We have seen a 12 per cent rise this year. As soon as the sun shines, we notice more men coming in looking for a hat to complete their outfit, particularly for a social event like Henley or a [cricket] Test match.” Ede & Ravenscroft’s panamas, including one that can be rolled up in a tube for easy transportation and one in navy blue, cost £75.
Hats, Guitard adds, “look good, while being practical. They define your silhouette, your personality. They are all about having self-confidence.”
Choosing a decent hat, however, requires as much time and consideration as buying a pair of spectacles. The style and proportions of a hat have to work with the size of your head and face, and it must complement height and build.
Among the wide selection available, Reiss has a couple of paper hats (paper straw is a common entry-level material, but it is more substantial than it sounds) at £39. Hugo Boss offers casual straw trilbies at £65-£75. Paul Smith has about a dozen straw-type styles (£79-£140), while at Mr Porter the summer hat selection includes Dunhill (£150-£415), Etro (£100), Rag and Bone (£95-£130), and Hartford (£100). At Harrods, Italian specialist Borsalino dominates the line-up (from £159-£359.) For the more experienced hat wearer, www.hatsandcaps.co.uk has an excellent selection online, with panamas ranging from £50 to £300.
Apart from brand positioning, the variance in prices is due mainly to the material used and the amount of craftsmanship; familiarise yourself with terms such as braided straw, sisal, raffia, toyo, parabuntal and Carludovica palmata straw. The latter, also known as toquilla grass or straw, is the material of panama hats, which happen to come from Ecuador, not Panama.
Specialists such as Bates carry many options of panamas, which include the classic 19th-century style with a high rounded crown, to a trilby, to a fedora (with wider brim than a trilby), or a planter’s style with a squarer crown and a broader brim. Prices are determined largely by the fineness of the hand weaving. Toquilla straw weaving is graded by an imprecise system related to the number of “threads” per inch. A Grade 28 has twice the number of threads as a Grade 14, but its fabric takes four times longer to be woven by hand.
The coastal town of Montecristi is home to the finest weaving in Ecuador and gives its name to the highest-quality panamas. Even higher up the quality ladder is the Superfino level, which commands the highest prices (£900-£1,500 at Bates). These hats can take up to five months to weave.
As they are made from a natural product, no straw hats are the same, and slight imperfections are part of their character. “Very white examples have been bleached,” says Nicolas Payne-Baader at Lock & Co. “Many aficionados prefer the more natural ivory or very pale brown shades.”
To find your hat size, your head should be measured around about half an inch above the eyebrow. Serious hat wearers do not rely on S, M, L and XL labels, which are the mark of a cheaper product. A European hat size of 60cms (23⅝ inches) equates to 7⅜ in UK sizes and 7½ in US size scale. “The two older British and American size scales are confusing and it’s much easier to go with a centimetre size,” says Payne-Baader. “But remember: with the exception of rigid hats like top hats or bowlers, virtually all hats and caps will shrink slightly, so don’t start out with something that feels tight as it won’t stretch.”
Tradition is back on top
Right in time for Royal Ascot, the chance discovery of a roll of rare French silk plush fabric has enabled London hatter James Lock to make silk top hats – albeit only 20 – for the first time in more than half a century, writes Eric Musgrave.
The silk plush was only made in France, and the last factory closed about 50 years ago. Modern top hats are usually made from rabbit fur felt or wool. The fabric was discovered by a customer of Lock’s when clearing out a family attic, and Locke’s managing director John Stephenson, who is in his 70s, confirmed that the black cloth was indeed the correct one.
“There is a strong demand for real silk top hats, but old models are almost always very small sizes,” said Sue Simpson, Lock’s retail director. “Modern hats need to be five sizes larger than they were 50 years ago, so we will be making the new hats only in 7⅝ and 7¾. We have a waiting list for vintage top hats in these sizes.”
The hats are being made in Lock’s south London factory; a recently retired employee had to be consulted on how to work the plush as no one in the factory had made a silk topper before. The method involves wrapping thin gauze-like cotton around a wooden hat “block” shape and then applying several coats of shellac, a natural resin, to make the hat rigid. Each layer needs 24 hours to dry. Once the shape is set, the silk plush fabric, which has a lustrous raised nap finish, is cut and stretched by hand over the form. The curled brim is trimmed with silk grosgrain ribbon, which is also used for the hat band. The interior is lined and has a leather sweatband. Each hat takes a week to make.
“The crown of the new hats will be 6 inches high and will have the classic bell-shaped or waisted profile, so that the top of the crown is the widest part. This is the most desirable shape for a top hat,” explains Simpson. Each hat will also be adjusted to the exact dimensions of the owner’s head by use of a device called a conformateur, and will cost £4,500 (by contrast, a new fur felt top hat is £395-£595). Tradition does have its price.