History of hat making
From Queen Victoria to Sir Winston Churchill, all the greatest Britons have worn a Christys’ hat. Discover Britain interviews Christys’ managing director Steve Clarke about hat making and history…
Christys & Co Ltd has a 242-year history, having launched in 1773. Can you tell us about its beginnings, when it was founded by Miller Christy?
The early years saw Christys’ Hats manufacturing the hat styles of the day – naval and military style tricornes and bicorne hats. By the end of the 18th century however, stiffened beaver hats with various crown heights, which Christys started to manufacture and evolve, were making their way over from continental Europe . The quality of Miller Christy’s hats generated significant demand, which in turn required Christys to source large numbers of felt hoods, primarily from Stockport in Lancashire.
During the course of the 19th century, in addition to the head office and shop in Gracechurch Street, Christys developed its manufacturing at two sites – Stockport for felt hats and Bermondsey for all other styles, particularly stiff hats. By the end of the century, Christys’ Hats was the world’s largest hat manufacturer by some degree.
What had led Miller Christy into millinery in the first place?
Miller Christy was the youngest of five sons and in 1763 was apprentice to his cousin William Miller, who was himself a prominent felt hat maker, to learn the ‘art and mystery of feltmaking’ as the apprenticeship was then called. In 1773, Miller Christy travelled south to seek his fortune and on 1 March 1773, set up a hat manufacturers in a small workroom and shop off Gracechurch Street in the City of London.
The company has survived more than two centuries, despite the decline in hat wearing. What has been the key to its enduring success?
The ability to adapt. For 175 years, hat wearing was effectively an obligation – and as the company’s product catalogues show, there was a vast range to choose from – ensuring the right hat for the right occasion. This same philosophy carried us through the lean years of the 1960s to the 1990s – when the company focused on horse riding and protective headwear as a major revenue generator. Nowadays hat wearing is a choice, and a choice that is increasingly embraced by both the style-conscious as well as the more practically-minded – such as sportsmen and women and those looking for protection from the weather.
Christys has been adamant about keeping its traditional methods and remains the only company to make top hats and bowlers in the traditional way. Can you explain how and why these methods remain superior?
Many of the techniques were developed and honed in times when everyone wore a hat. Christys has always been renowned for the quality of its headwear and the techniques for achieving this back then are difficult to improve on now. That said, whilst we are truly proud of our heritage and craftsmanship, we are a forward-looking brand, keen to ensure that our hats are contemporary and the perfect complement to the fashions and needs of today.
Can you describe to us the process of making a Christys’ hat?
There are many hat styles with subtle variations of manufacture. So let’s just follow the journey of one classic – the fedora. Felt is one of the oldest clothing and millinery materials. Many animal hairs, such as beaver or wool, have a natural ability to bind together – or felt – once subjected to heat and steam. This is precisely how a felt hood is still created – with the finest hairs or fibres of wool or rabbit hair drawn onto a large metal cone under steam. Afterwards, in the same way a woollen garment might shrink in hot water, so the large hood, after being peeled from the cone, is washed continuously in hot water until it shrinks to the required size for making a hat.
Christys’ Hats has been popular with royalty ever since King George III first donned one. Can you talk us through the long line of royals who have patronised Christys?
Christys’ Hats has been making fine hats across nine reigns of British royals starting with King George III. From then on there have been many royals patronising Christys, such as King George V, King George VI, Prince Albert and HM Queen Victoria – who both donned a Christys’ top hat, HM Queen Elizabeth, and the late Queen Mother who visited the Stockport factory in 1963 having commissioned Christys to make miniature hats for Queen Elizabeth II’s dolls’ house many years earlier.
The company has also starred on the silver screen, having made the “Godfather hat” (aka Christys’ Homburg hat) worn by Don Corleone. Can you tell us the back story behind that?
The Christys’ Homburg hat is a popular timeless classic. The style became popular in 1899 when it was worn by Edward VII Prince of Wales, while in later decades it was famously preferred by prime minister Anthony Eden. Our Homburg was also the signature hat of politician Sir Winston Churchill. Later on in the 1970s, the Godfather films were released. The lead character, Don Corleone, donned a Homburg made by Christys, keeping this famous hat style alive.
Christys also created the iconic hats worn by the Metropolitan Police. Can you tell us how that commission came about and how Christys arrived at that design?
The Metropolitan police was formed in 1829. The early uniform included a ‘stovepipe’ high-crown top-hat style of hat, which Christys won the tender for and supplied. In 1863 a new style – known as the custodian helmet – was created based on the British Army Home Service Helmet. We do not have records of the development process, but, suffice to say, Christys supplied many forces with their specific headwear requirements, including this helmet.
What, in your opinion, has been the all-time high moment for Christys’ Hats?
This is very difficult to say, given I have overseen just a small part of this company’s fascinating history. However, when Britain was truly great, everyone wore a hat – and for many, this was a Christys’ hat. This means we have been an ‘accessory to history’, if you like, and thankfully we are still here and can be an accessory to the future. This year we made a cap for the Queen’s chauffeur. I personally love the idea that the Queen can’t avoid looking at one of our caps when she is driven to an event or engagement.
Panamas, top hats, trilbies, tweed caps, bowlers, fedoras… Christys is master of them all. What is your personal favourite (and what famous fans throughout history concur?)
I often wear a Kent trilby – a narrow brim classic trilby in fur felt. My own is charcoal grey. Tom Sturridge owns three of them – so obviously a man of good taste!
Why do you think that people stopped wearing hats as a matter of course?
The 1960s rebellion – the youth of that era did not want anything to do with the strict codes of their parents – and that included hat wearing. Thankfully that kind of rebellion is no longer necessary and, more important, hat wearing and styling can be a matter of choice. When it’s a matter of choice, then hat wearing is again recognised as a definitive accessory.
And do you believe that they are making a comeback?
Absolutely – on TV, in magazines, in films, at festivals, on the terraces, hats are now everywhere again. We’re certainly growing and in demand.
People can get a little confused about hat etiquette. Can you clear up whether it’s rude to wear a hat indoors?
In our view – not any more. When hat wearing was an obligation, it came with certain codes. Now it is a matter of choice in a more equal society, so you can wear your hat wherever you like without offending people.
What advice would you give those buying a hat for Ascot for the first time?
Check which enclosure your ticket is in and ensure you read the dress code. For the royal enclosure, you will need a top hat – and Christys’ Hats make the finest.
What is it about a hat that makes the wearer feel special, more than perhaps any other accessory?
A hat defines your look. In almost any photo where the person is wearing a hat, your eye is drawn to the head and the headwear. As such it is the definitive accessory we believe, and if you select well, it will lift your entire outfit and generate so many positive comments that you’ll be floating on air!
What exciting things are on the horizon for Christys’ over the next year?
We recently opened a second store in the Seven Dials area of London, in addition to our small Princes Arcade, St James’s store. It’s great to be able to offer people the chance to find the perfect style and colour that suits them.
We are also launching our fun, fresh, fashion line – called CROWN by Christys. It’s been spearheaded by Noel Stewart, our creative director, and we see it as the perfect way for people to experiment with a new hat each season.
9 Shorts Gardens, Seven Dials, London, WC2H 9AT
16 Princes Arcade, London, SW1Y 6DS