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$32k for beaver silk? A guide to racing fashion

Football fans squeeze into terraces wearing their teams' colors, rugby supporters hit up sevens tournaments in fancy dress, and celebrities are regularly seen suited and booted in the Royal Box at Wimbledon.

But nothing quite compares to the UK's prestigious Royal Ascot.

Crowds flock to Ascot Racecourse in June each year, eager for summer sun, racing action, and to play a part in a unique British tradition.

For centuries, the male dress code at Ascot has remained unchanged. The iconic top hat is the most striking element, and men are also required to wear a morning coat, waist coat, tie, striped trousers, and perfectly polished shoes.

It's a dress code fit for The Queen, who, along with other members of the royal family, graces Ascot's grandstand each year.

"It's a very strict dress code you have to stick to at Ascot," Kristian Robson, a tailor at Oliver Brown -- one of a few gentlemen's outfitters licensed to serve Royal Ascot -- told CNN's Winning Post.

"Nowadays more silk waistcoats have come into it. Grey is very fashionable now, while black top hats are more fashionable to wear for men. Otherwise it's pretty much the same as it's always been."

Price to pay

As for the top hats, Oliver Brown is the oldest and biggest silk hat dealer in the world with 700 in stock, sent out to 70 suppliers around the world.

The design of the hat itself dates back to 1780. Now no longer made, it is the most expensive and sought-after part of the outfit.

"People love them because they look so elegant and have a beautiful shine," says Robson.

"They start from sort of £1000 ($1300) and go up to around £3,000 or £4,000 ($5,230) -- some of the very rare ones go for more than that.

"We have a beaver silk hat that's gold and 200 years old. That's £25,000 ($32,000)."

If a silk hat is outside your price range, then woolen replicas are also available, although Robson admits that they're not nearly as good in terms of style and quality.

A history of the silk top hat

It is believed that a dispute between two brothers -- the last producers of the silk for the top hats -- led to the hats becoming such prized assets.

"In France, the silk plush was made 200 years ago, and 60 years ago two of the last mills in France, outside Lyon, were burnt down after two brothers fell out," Robson explains.

"The demand was very low so they decided to quit the whole thing and ended up burning down the factories. That's the last loom that was there, there's no looms left. That's why it's so rare.

"Making the top hats isn't a problem, but putting the silk on is a problem because you can't get it anywhere."

But that hasn't stopped people buying them; Robson estimates 50% of the company's annual turnover comes from Ascot dress.

Sport's most prestigious fashion parade certainly comes at a cost.


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