Behold, the Conformateur! A 19th century hat-fitting device

Tricia Roush is justifiably excited by her acquisition of an 1821 Conformateur in excellent shape. Conformateurs are Victorian devices used to measure the irregularities in the heads of milliner's customers, to ensure a better fit from the eventual hat. Roush explains the device's working in detail, with generous photos of the extraordinary device in action.

While the conformateur is on the head, after the fingers are pressed in so that they are conforming to the head shape, a piece of paper is placed into a frame on the top of the machine. Little pins stick out of the top of the machine, each one attached to one of the fingers, so that the pins now reflect the head shape as well, but in miniature. The frame swings down on a hinge to press the paper into the pins, perforating the paper. In this photo, you can see that the inside of the frame is lined in cork, and there are little holes in the cork where the pins have pressed.

The perforations in the paper make a pattern that's a recording of the person's head shape. The hat maker then cuts the pattern out with scissors along the perforations to store for future use. Here are some examples of the paper patterns. Because it's a shrunken version of the person's head shape, any bumps and asymmetry in the head shape (we all have them) are exaggerated in the pattern, as you can see here.

Oh Joy! My Conformateur (via JWZ)


  1. Are you sure this isn’t a combination cheese slicer and chocolate fountain? It would make a great centerpiece at a garden party

  2. Johann Spurzheim told me this device can also map your personality, mental development and moral faculties.

  3. I’d be rather worried if my head turned out to be any of those shapes with the dotted lines …

  4. Last year, I finally got a fitted top hat from Paul’s Hat Works in San Francisco. I have a rather flat, long head and it’s tough to find a properly sized hat. The girls at Paul’s put that torture device on my head, which traced out the odd and somewhat pear-shaped silhouette of my cranium which they then used as a template to form my hat.

    I now have a perfectly fitting top hat! Once I have the spare change, I’ll get a fedora from them.

    In fact, the story behind Paul’s Hat Works is a cute one, as it was rescued from the brink of disappearance and obsolescence by the fair ladies currently handling it.

    Mainstream fashion has forgotten about proper men’s hats (baseball caps? please), but some of us diehards won’t let go!

    1. I have a rather flat, long head and it’s tough to find a properly sized hat.

      I have a Frankenstein head, too. Hats are impossible, but I can balance stuff up there really well.

      1.  Fellow monster melon head here.  You should try finding a motorcycle helmet that fits!  I ended up spending over $400.  Ouch.

    2. I also had the fine ladies at Paul’s Hat Works make me a hat, last Fall. And going through the conformateur was just one part of the memorable, and very satisfying, process. I even have a photo of my head tracing to remind myself what I look like from above. :)

    3. We made this mini documentary on Paul’s Hatworks for the International Documentary Challenge. It screened at Hot Docs 2011 and won Best Cinematography.

  5. I also had a custom hat made for me (cheap!) in an old shop here in Rosario, Argentina. The elderly gentleman on the shop must have been aware of my surprise when he told me that the procedure wouldn’t hurt me. He used a scrap of thick manila paper to keep the tracing of the head and from it, choose the wooden forms for the hat. The device is somewhat heavy and feels like putting an old typewriter over your head. I should ask for my copy of my headbumps for future reference (wonder if one’s skull shapes changes thru time, like our feet’s shape)

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