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  • Materials and Techniques:

    silk plush, wool felt, silk, leather, gold paper

  • Credit Line:

    Acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Oliver Messel's family was prominent in the British social scene. This meant following certain social dress codes on specified occasions and most society men of Messel's age would have owned their own top hats.

The 19th century saw the silk top hat become regulation headwear for men, not just a fashion accessory, but a symbol of respectability. The height of the crown varyied over the years - fashion historian James Laver has drawn parallels between the top hat’s increasing height in the mid-century and the tall chimneys that characterised the 19th century industrial landscape.

Gradually the 'topper' dropped out of favour, except for certain social occasions, with which they are still associated - ceremonial events, especially weddings, some race meetings, notably Ascot, and the most formal evening dress events.

Although accepted as ‘aristocratic’ dress, the top hat, combined with morning dress became the most levelling of all men’s dress. Dressed in hired suit for weddings or Ascot, it is often impossible to guess a man’s social standing. The man most associated with ‘top hat and tails’ in the 20th century, Fred Astaire, wore the ‘uniform’ to play impoverished hoofers, gamblers as well as young men about town, but wearing formal dress transformed him into Everyman.

Oliver Messel (1904-1978) was Britain's leading theatre designer from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s, working in every aspect of entertainment - ballet, drama, film, musical, opera and revue - as well as in interior decoration and textile design. His lavish, painterly and romantic designs informed by period styles, were perfectly in tune with his times and earned him an international reputation. By 1960, however, Messel's style had become unfashionable, having no sympathy with the new 'kitchen sink' school of theatre. He increasingly concentrated on his non-theatrical painting and designing and eventually retired to the Caribbean, where he began a new career designing and building highly idiosyncratic luxury villas.

Physical description

Black silk top hat with high crown and narrow brim, curved at the sides; the hatband is of fine black felt. The hat is lined in silk with a leather sweatband and on the crown, beneath the hatter's emblem are stuck gilt paper letters OHSM

Materials and Techniques

silk plush, wool felt, silk, leather, gold paper

Marks and inscriptions

Royal Arms 'by appointment' over cartouche within which 'Woodrow / 46, Piccadilly, / London.' Beneath a scroll with names of other cities with branches and 'BEST QUALITY'

"O H S M"
Oliver Hilary Sambourne Messel

Object history note

Oliver Messel's top hat, worn for society events or official functions.
Lord Snowdon, Oliver Messel's nephew, inherited Messel's theatre designs and other designs and artefacts. The designs were briefly stored in a disused chapel in Kensington Palace before being housed at the V&A from 1981 on indefinite loan. The V&A Theatre Museum purchased the Oliver Messel collection from Lord Snowdon in 2005.

Descriptive line

Top hat owned by Oliver Messel


Silk; Plush; Felt; Leather; Paper


Blocking; Hand stitching; Machine stitching


Hats & headwear


Theatre and Performance Collection

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