The Way You Wear Your Hat

Whether attending an elegant dinner or watching a song and dance number, let’s be honest…a top hat adds class and style!  Like a cherry on an ice cream sundae, a top hat is a perfect finishing touch.  Could you imagine a magician without that black hat to pull the rabbit out of or Fred Astaire doing his dance routine with merely a cane?  These occasions just wouldn’t be the same without a top hat.  The top hat has become a highly regarded accessory, but this wasn’t always the case.  Believe it or not, the top hat was at one time, controversial, and its journey is an interesting one.

In examining the development of the top hat, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.  We begin back in England in the 18th century with the young elegant class, known as Dandies.  And as with every trend, there is always a trendsetter.  In this case, Charles II is credited with being the trendsetter and the first Dandy.  The influence of the Dandies began to spread to other countries and the Macaroni Club was formed, in which members wore white neck ties, knotted in bows.  And it was against this backdrop of fashion and flair that the first top hat arrived in 1797.

The first top hat wearer was James Hetherington, who was caught strutting the streets of London, wearing a stovepipe shaped top hat.  His hat created quite a stir and attracted a huge multitude of people, as well as a police officer.  Hetherington was arrested and went before court, accused of disturbing public order.  As his defense, Hetherington argued that every English man had the right to put whatever he wanted on his head.  After the court meeting, the London newspaper issued the following statement, “Hetherington’s 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.”  Sure enough, they were right on the money!

Leather Top Hat:

Leather Top Hat

After Hetherington’s incident, top hats were given the name “stovepipe hats”, as they were straight and taller than they are today.  Top hats started to become more common during the Victorian era (around 1830), at which time the black silk hat was crafted.  The hat was comprised of cheesecloth, flannel, linen, and shellac.  The height of the hat changed over time, but when first constructed, reached as high as 20 cm.  From 1837 to 1901, the height was reduced to between 16 and 17 cm, and by 1920, the height had settled to around 12 to 13 cm, which is still the average height to this day.

On a note of interest, family and friends in mourning would put a wide cloth band around their top hat, indicating they were mourning.  The wider the band, the more significant the funeral was.  Following the silk top hat was the felt top hat.  These hats have replaced the silk hat since the 1960s and felt hats were used at funeral services since the early 1900s.  In present day, pallbearers wear hats with dull felt while undertakers wear fur felt hats.  On a lighter note, the grey top hat, made of felt, has been the prime choice to wear at weddings since the mid 1900s.  These hats originated from the Ascot horse races.

Victorian Top Hat – Grey:

Victorian Top Hat

Today, the most common top hat is one made from felt.  However, there are still silk hats in circulation, though less common, and there are even leather and plastic top hats.  Also, the uses and occasions for wearing top hats have expanded beyond weddings and funerals, making the top hat a staple of many looks.  For a bit of flair and fun, take a peek at our top hats and other hat collections at:  http://www.historicalclothingrealm.com/

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