|"Well known Bond Street Loungers in 1820." These nobleman toffs each worked with their personal hatters to design distinctive hat shapes that complimented their style, silhouettes, and personalities. Lesser mortal wore more standard styles.|
What do you think of when you hear the words top hat? Fred Astaire? Abraham Lincoln? Mr. Peanut? Frosty the Snowman? Monopoly’s Mr. Moneybags? La Belle Époque? The lofty headgear was the distinctive mark of a gentleman in one way or another for more than 150 years along the way transforming from business street-wear to the required accouterments of the most formal and important occasions. It replaced the century long dominance of various forms of the tri-corn hat which had in turn replaced the gaudy wide brimmed and plumed soft felt hats of the age of the Cavaliers. But as is the case with most fashion revolutions, its introduction was marked by shock, alarm, and the arrest of the first public wearer.
It was not that high hats were previously unknown. Puritans on both sides of the Puddle famously sported hats with a high tapering crown and flat top and three or four-inch-wide stiff brim. A softer felt version of that hat had a rounded crown which caused it to be dubbed a sugarloaf hat.
Various forms of high hats began to be fashionable in Europe, in the 1780’s and in England of the late Georgian period fashionable fops known as the Dandies of the Macaroni Club hat taken to a low top hat with tapering flat top and curled short brim. Like most fashionable hats, the best were made with beaver felt. About the same time the French began constructing ridged top hats sheathed in black silk. But with tensions running high over the ruckus of the French Revolution the usual influence of Paris fashion on the English had been disrupted and Londoners at first failed to take up the trend.
That is until an intrepid haberdasher decided to show off his latest creation based on the new French look and drum up by taking a stroll during the first week of January 1797. John Hetherington created an immediate sensation bordering on a riot, at least according to official records. He was summoned to court on charges of creating a public disturbance. According to the testimony of the Bow Street Runner sent to arrest the miscreant:
He had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.
The court took an exceptionally stern view of the offense ruling that Hetherington guilty of wearing a hat “calculated to frighten timid people”, he was bound over to keep the peace in consideration of a sum of £50. That was an enormous sum, far exceeding the annual income of all but the wealthiest Britons. Of course, he would only have to pay if he created another disturbance, of which no record appears.
Hetherington may have been chastised but I suspect he was back on the street in the hat within months because, as The Times editorialized the next day his “hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear. We believe that both the court and the police made a mistake here.”
The hatter quickly discovered that as Phineas T. Barnum would later proclaim, “there is no such thing as bad publicity. Fashionable Londoners were soon hounding him for hats as soon as fast as he could make them, other haberdashers joined the fray, a French made hats were being smuggled from the Continent.
While some historians point out that another hatter, George Dunning had patented the process of applying specially processed crepe silk to a stiff frame form to create an “artificial beaver hat” as early as 1794 and his firm Dunnage & Larkin were listed as makers of “waterproof silk hats” in 1798. There apparently was room for both vendors and others who quickly joined the rush to meet demand.
Within a few years the same Bow Street Runners that had arrested Hetherington would be outfitted with toppers as would their ultimate replacements, Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police—the Peelers or Bobbies. Some Red Coat Regiments of the late Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 in North America also wore them.
In America James Madison was the last President to wear a tri-corn. His successor, James Monroe, who had served as Minister to France, was inaugurated in a top Hat as was every one of his successors who had a formal public ceremony through Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Through most of the first half of the 19th Century silk toppers and beaver models competed, with the beavers being preferred for much of that time. Styles would change from year to year around the height of the crown, width and shape of the brim, and the style of ribbon. In most of those years hats were mid-rise and belled outward to the flat crown.
As any student of Dickens will recall, top hats were ubiquitous by the early Victorian era, and the used and battered hats of gentlemen were soon gracing the heads of the scruffy proletariat and London slum denizens.
In the US beavers, which naturally lighter in color—often a dun, or tan but could be enlivened with a bright wide band but could be bleached white or died black were the overwhelming favorite except among certain somber professions—Protestant clergy particularly dour Calvinists like Congregationalists and Presbyterians, undertakers, lawyers, and bankers who matched high silk hats with black frock coats. The hats were usually straight-sided and extremely tall—up to nearly eight inches high towering over most beavers which stood six inches high or less. That gave the silk hats the popular nick name stovepipe hats.
But by 1850 even the most remote streams in the mountains of the American and Canadian West had been over-trapped. The beaver was being driven to the edge of extinction. At first hat prices skyrocketed and then by mid-decade the whole beaver trade collapsed. Attempts to use other trapped furs including otter, muskrat, mink, and even rabbit failed to match the sturdiness and natural water repellent qualities of the beaver. Silk hats began to spread to classes that had previously shunned them.
|In 1850 Prince Albert was photographed in a shiny silk top hat with Queen Victoria. Always a style setter the Prince accelerated the acceptance of silk over scarcer and scarcer beaver hats.|
In England silk toppers got a major boost when that trend setter Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born concert was photographed with Her Majesty in a high, shiny silk hat in 1850. Just as his introduction of a Christmas tree at the Palace and his long coat, Albert set the standard for fashionable Victorians.
The most famous American to sport a stovepipe was, of course, Abraham Lincoln, who began wearing one as a circuit riding lawyer about the same time. He chose an extremely tall version that emphasized his long, lanky frame and may have been subtle intimidation to political and courtroom rivals, especially the diminutive Steven A. Douglas. It also made him easy to see when addressing large outdoor crowds. He certainly embraced the hat as a kind of trademark, typical of the shrewd marketing by a man many considered to be a backwoods hick. Lincoln also famously used his hat as a kind of brief case, stuffing legal documents, letters, bills, and speech drafts into the interior band of the commodious hat.
|America's most famous stovepipe hat wearer, Abraham Lincoln on a visit to the Army posed with spy chief Alan Pinkerton and Major General John A. McClernand in October 1862 shortly after the Battle of Antietam.|
Late in the Civil War Lincoln visited the Petersburg front and climbed a parapet to observe Yankee shelling of the besieged city. He stood erect in his stovepipe towering over the defensive fortification, a clearly identifiable target for Confederate marksmen. As he began to draw fire the President was rudely shoved to the ground by a young staff officer, Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who snarled, “Get down, you fool!”
Capitalist exploiters and crushers of labor were traditionally depicted bloated fat cats in top hats and spats. In the Depression real capitalists dropped the use of the hats to take the heat off themselves.
In the post-Civil War Era the silk top hat became increasingly identified with the capitalist elite and government authority. By the 1880’s most middle-class Americans, and ordinary businessmen had settled into a pattern of alternating bowler or Derby hats with straw boaters for the warmer months. Soft felt hats with wider brims were worn in the West and South and many workmen took to modest cloth caps. Street photos regularly show the mix and it is easy to pick out the posh minority still in top hats.
Toppers remained more stylish in England, where they were required wear to the Houses of Parliament, most law courts, banks, and elite schools. In France, after the carnage of the massacre of the Communards, top hats took on special significance in testifying to class privilege. They are prominently featured in the impressionist paintings of Renoir, Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, and in Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day.
|Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street: Rainy Day.|
On the other hand, the top hat was associated with a gay night life when paired with the white tie and formal tail coat. The introduction of the opera hat—a miraculous pop-up contraption that made the otherwise unwieldy high hats more portable and practical. By the 1920’s they were the symbol of the idle rich at play.
That may have been a problem for the distinctive fashion statement after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 plunged Americans, and most of the world into the Great Depression. Early on Hollywood assumed that impoverished folks who continued to splurge on weekly tickets to the movies would forget their woes with films about the filthy rich both heaving melodramas and drawing room farces like Dinner at Eight that featured gorgeous ladies in elegant gowns and men in tails and toppers. And maybe that worked for a while, but the collective worm was turning. Audiences began to crave and demand pictures that reflected their lives, not those of their “betters” who seemed insulated from their suffering. Led by the gritty urban realism offered up by Warner Bros. by mid-decade depictions of the idle rich were both diminishing and far less flattering.
|Fred Astair and his sister Adele epitomized high hat elegance on Broadway i the 1920's before he brought it to the RKO screen with Ginger Rodgers.|
Top hat and tails lived on in the special glamor of the musical exemplified by elegant Fred Astaire, but by the end of his RKO contract he was seen more and more in ordinary street clothes.
On the cusp of World War II, the top hat had virtually disappeared from ordinary street wear. New York Bankers and financial titans who had stayed loyal to the look, turned to a more modest felt homburg hat as de rigueur formal business wear. and was reserved to the most formal occasions of entertainment—a night at the opera or ballet, and the toniest of weddings and funerals. Much the same was true in Britain outside of the rarified boundaries of the City of London and the Royal Court.
In post-War America opportunities to sport a topper dwindled to near zero. They faded from use in formal weddings and funerals, and disappeared as night-on-the-town formal wear. In 1952 it was Dwight Eisenhower who defied tradition and was inaugurated in a black homburg and he repeated the felt hat in 1956.
|Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to break the top hat tradition for his two inaugurations but sported one to escort his young replacement John F. Kennedy to his.|
Most people believe it was John F. Kennedy who broke the tradition, but at his 1960 inauguration both he and Eisenhower rode to the ceremony in an open car sporting silk top hats. But he pointedly removed the hat for the inaugural address, the better to show off his famous hair. In the process Kennedy nearly destroyed not just the very limited market for top hats, but the entire men’s hat industry. He was the last President to wear a top hat for the inauguration.
The last manufacture of the highly specialized black crepe silk used in a traditional top hat ceased production in 1983 and the looms used to weave the cloth were said to have been destroyed and thrown into a river by the feuding brothers who inherited the family business. Since there is still a modest demand in Britain for ceremonial top hats, vintage toppers are in high demand and a few special craftsmen charge exorbitant prices to restore, recondition, and apply waterproofing to the vintage hats
Since the 1980 grey felt top hats inspired by the sportsmen’s toppers worn at Ascot opening day, have been fashionable at many ostentatious formal weddings. Traditionalists pooh-pooh the trend as not formal and often silly looking.
More recently American men’s formal wear purveyors have been pushing black soft felt top hats with a low 4-inch crown for “fairy-tail weddings” and even with black tie tuxedos for proms. The rental hats seldom fit well and usually look ridiculous.