THE RISE AND FALL OF THE TOP HAT
Now largely relegated to magicians, equestrians, voodoo priests and the occasional musical artist, there was a time when no gentleman would have headed out on New Year’s Eve without a top hat.
Also known as a high hat, silk hat, cylinder hat, chimneypot or stovepipe hat, or simply a “topper,” the top hat is distinguished by its tall silhouette, flat crown and broad brim. It was most prevalent from the mid-18th to mid-20th century, thereafter fading from fashion except for certain situations. Its whimsical origin is attributed to a hat maker named Hetherington, who in January 1797 appeared in the London streets wearing a hat shaped like a stovepipe. The sight of his hat gathered such a large crowd that he was arrested for disturbing the peace, which reportedly entailed women fainting, children crying and dogs barking. Going before the judge, the hat maker defended the right of every Englishman to place whatever he wanted upon his own head. Regarding the novel case, The London Times wrote that “Hetherington's hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear.” Sure enough, black silk top hats were soon being donned by young English dandies who also wore neckties knotted in a bow, a style started by George Bryan “Beau” Brummell. From England the newly fashionable top hat made its way to France and the Netherlands, undergoing various changes through the years. During the Empire Period (1800-1850), it grew significantly taller and was known as the “stovepipe hat.”
In the Victorian era (1837-1901), the height came back down, with the crown growing larger near the end of the 19th century. There was also the opera hat, a black silk top hat with a collapsible mechanism that allowed for easy cloakroom storage. In the 1920s the top hat was further reduced several inches and there it remained. Up until World War I, among upper-class males the top hat was a standard item of formalwear for both day and evening. Because of this association with the upper class, satirists and cartoonists took to using the top hat as a symbol of capitalism. Though if fell out of widespread use after the Second World War, the top hat persisted in special diplomatic occasions such as state funerals and US presidential inaugurations, the last instance being President Kennedy’s in 1961. Around the same time in the UK, gray felt top hats, conventionally worn for the Ascot horse races, became the preferred style for formal wedding ceremonies. Ladies’ formal riding attire, meanwhile, still includes a top hat, and Uncle Sam is never seen without his red, white and blue version. Magicians, of course, have long relied on the top hat for producing rabbits, and it’s a chorus line staple. Then there’s Slash of Guns N’ Roses.
Undeniably, the top hat has had a distinguished and diversified history, and as long as men, or women (thanks to Marlene Dietrich), aspire to dandy elegance, it will likely resurface.
We close the year with a music video tutorial, delivered with ultimate style by the singular Fred Astaire from the 1935 movie “Top Hat.” Happy New Year!