Travel Journal

Feig on the Road: Topping Off in London

Part eight of Paul Feig's sartorial tour of the press junket.

Oct 10, 2013 | 12:07 PM

[Paul Feig's daily travel journal continues. To see what all the fuss is about, download "The Heat" in digital HD today, or pre-order it on DVD or Blu-Ray, available October 15.]

June 16th – Another day off. Did something extremely fun if you're into traditional men's fashion. And when I say "traditional," I mean TRADITIONAL. Because I went to Hetherington Hats. What is that, you ask? Just another hat store? No, my friends, this is where you go to buy a top hat. A "real" top hat. And I don't mean some high quality newly made top hat. I'm talking about Hetherington is your source for real top hats from when people actually wore them all the time. Run by Martin Ellis Jones, this "store" is actually in the basement of a London row house. You have to know it's there or you'd think it was just another white house on Walpole Street. But if you're in the know and have made an appointment, you will walk up to 25 Walpole Street and head down a set of perilous stairs and into a tiny apartment that is literally filled with nothing but old top hats. Piles of them. I mean, up to the ceiling everywhere you look. It's amazing.

Here's how the whole process of finding a top hat works: Martin takes a 100-year-old contraption that is shaped like a top hat but which looks like some brain torture device from a steam punk graphic novel and puts it on your head. It's too small until he pushes it down and it opens its wooden fingers and adjusts itself to every bump, curve and crevice on the part of your head where a hat would sit.

He then locks it and takes it off your head. On top of the device, the wooden fingers have formed an oval that Martin traces onto a piece of paper he's pressed inside it. He takes out that piece of paper and cuts out the oval. He then takes a second ancient device that sort of looks like a huge wooden bracelet with a solid wood center, places the oval piece of paper into the middle of it, and then slowly pushes each of the roughly sixty small pieces of wood in until they touch the edges of the oval.

He does this all the way around and basically creates an exact replica of your head, or at least the ring around your head that a hat sits on. He then takes this device, finds a hat that is your basic size and pushes the device into it. It's a very tight fit so that he can use it to basically mold the hat to your head. Then he or one of his co-workers disappears into a small kitchen where a tea kettle is blasting out steam and uses the steam to make the hat submit to the shape of your proxy wooden head.

And it does. He brings the hat out and puts it on your head, and it feels like the hat was made for you. I never in my life thought from looking at one that a top hat could be comfortable. I've tried on old top hats over the years in antique stores and they were always too round and felt like I had a small bucket sitting on my scalp. But suddenly I was wearing a 100+ year-old top hat that was as comfortable as anything I've ever had on my head.

The quality of the old top hats is remarkable. I don't even know exactly what they're made out of but it's some kind of animal hide. It's like a short fur that's been brushed in one direction and ironed down so that it looks shiny and flat. The hat Martin picked out for me was made by some company called Cass Late Bax, whom I assume are long out of business. The controversy over this hat Martin picked out for me is that it was extremely tall. Not Butcher Bill from "The Gangs of New York" tall but not too far off, to be honest. I was quite surprised at this and wondered if it was too cartoonishly tall for my head. But then a) it's a top hat and sadly these days a top hat will always look like something from a cartoon since no one wears them anymore and b) I'm six feet tall and Martin said that tall men should wear tall hats. Hey, who am I to argue? He's the top hat expert, not me.

It was an absolutely fantastic experience and to cap it off, Martin then took us on a tour of the neighborhood and showed us the former houses of both Lawrence Olivier and Joan Plowright and Dracula author Bram Stoker. But the big question was would I actually buy the top hat? Oh, let me tell you, friends, I wanted to. More than anything. But I had to consider two things. First, Ascot is this Wednesday and I won't be around for it since I have to go to Berlin tomorrow to promote the movie and then I head back to Boston after that.

What is Ascot? Something I've wanted to go to my entire life. It's pretty much one of the most British things you can do. It's a horse race but the tradition is men wear full formal wear, in the form of morning coats and striped black and gray trousers (we call them "pants" back home but if you do that here, everyone makes fun of the fact that you're actually talking about underwear—go figure) and a top hat. Without these, you can't get in. No admission. End of story. Women must also dress to the nines and wear a big fancy hat. It all looks like something out of "My Fair Lady" (not that many of you remember what that is—look it up, for Pete's sake) and to me, a guy who loves dressing up, it seems like it would be the greatest day of my life. But I can't go and have no other true need for a top hat unless I really plan on Downton Abbeying it up and getting even more stares than I normally do.

Second, and most importantly, the hat costs 3,200 pounds. Pounds are not dollars. They're pretty much two dollars each. (A little less but not by much.)  And so we're talking about laying out the price of a Savile Row suit for something I may or may not wear more than a dozen times in my life. And so, sadly, my perfectly fitting top hat remains in Martin's basement.

But if I win the lottery, I can guarantee what my first purchase will be.

Suit worn while having my top hat experience: A cranberry Tom Ford sports jacket with white linen Ralph Lauren pants and a pink Anto shirt. No tie, which makes me feel a bit naked. I'm one of those guys who is just more comfortable wearing a tie. The less of my chest and neck the world has to see, the better.

Heading off to a couple of London Collection: Men’s shows, which is basically Men’s Fashion Week. Going to an event showing off the new Gieves and Hawks collection and then heading to the Esquire party for Jimmy Choo, which will take place at an amazing new private club called Number 5 Hartford, of which a friend of ours happens to be one of the founding members. (I know, that’s an obnoxious fact. As Kristen Wiig’s character would say to me if we were in "Bridesmaids," "He iiiiissssss?" But he’s our friend and he is one of the founding members. So, back off.) Looking forward to it. Always love any event that Esquire is involved in. Go figure.Paul Feig

Read more of Paul Feig's travel journal, and check back tomorrow for the next installment. In the meantime, you can download "The Heat" in digital HD today or pre-order it on DVD or Blu-Ray, available October 15.

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