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Want to get ahead at the UK’s top social event? Get your own top hat

Times certainly have changed. From the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, top hats were a "must-have" for many men's wardrobes. Nowadays they're rarely seen — only at elegant occasions, such as weddings, garden parties or a top-tier British horse race.

Unless you're a regular attendee at these events, consumers are more likely to rent the luxury lifestyle and enjoy that, than fully invest in it and spend up to £3,000-plus ($4,276) to buy a top hat, Winston Chesterfield, research director at Wealth-X, explained to CNBC.

Top Hats
Courtesy of Oliver Brown (London-based Gentlemen's Outfitters)

One event where you can't escape seeing a top hat is Royal Ascot. A five-day annual British horse-racing event at Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire, where some 300,000 racing fanatics congregate every June.

To uphold the event's reputation and prestige, the racecourse tightened its dress code in 2012 for its top two enclosures, whereby both men and women must wear smart attire, and either have to or are recommended to wear a hat or headpiece, depending on the arena.

"Consumers attending annual events, such as Royal Ascot, are becoming savvier in how they purchase the products required to meet the high sartorial standards. Top hats and fascinators are prime examples of products that people wear on just one occasion, never to be seen again," Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor International, told CNBC over email.

The Horses and Jockeys head past the grandstand at Ascot racecourse in 2013.
Charlie Crowhurst | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Appearance is taken extremely seriously, with attendees having spent £33 million ($47 million) solely on fashion and beauty treatments for the racecourse's events in 2013, according to a 2014 report by Deloitte.

"Royal Ascot is the pinnacle of the British Season," said royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams, noting that it's been popular among U.K. royals since Queen Anne's reign in the early 1700s.

"It is a showcase for fashion, often for extravagant ladies' outfits, and the racing is increasingly international with a new Grandstand opened in 2006. It does show society loves a show and often a classy picnic."

"Ascot top hats are a study in themselves. Black silk top hats often handed down in families can be hard to come by but are regarded as the finest. Very few own them. Morning dress with waistcoat and tie is essential with them," Fitzwilliams added.

Businesses hold onto top hat tradition

The summer is often a top hat maker's busiest season, with Chelsea-based outfitters Oliver Brown hiring out around 800 top hats in preparation for Ascot Week alone.

To make sure customers—whether renters or buyers—get the perfect fit in both comfort and hat positioning, the business trains up each member of its sales team, and offers a range, from the modern fur felt top hats, that start from £50 (hire) to antique silk top hats, which can start selling from £500 to £3,000-plus depending on height, size and style.

Morning Suit and Top Hat
Courtesy of Oliver Brown (London-based Gentlemen's Outfitters)

"As (silk) top hats are no longer in production, there is an infinite number in circulation and as such they are considered an investment piece," Oliver Brown proprietor, Kristian Robson, told CNBC over email.

"Therefore it's certainly worth investing as they will not lose their value and there is nothing like the elegant shine of a real vintage silk topper."

While renting has become increasingly popular, Berkshire-based Ascot Top Hats prefers to sell. Its owner Douglas Simpson told CNBC he usually sells top hats—ranging from £100 wool felt to £500-plus Silk Plush—to make sure customers leave with a hat that fits comfortably to their own head shape — which varies from person-to-person, while the hats have a specific structure that needs re-conforming.

"I believe selling is better than renting as you don't have to return the hat, also you also have the additional optional service of having the hat fitted (conformed to your head shape) to make it more comfortable," Douglas Simpson, owner at Ascot Top Hats, told CNBC over email.

"The top hat is the pinnacle of elegance, a silk plush top hat embodies the traditions old, the necessity for a gentleman wardrobe, and aim to put one head and shoulders above the rest."

Clarification: This story has been updated following clarification from Fitzwilliams on one of his remarks.

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