Exploring the Origins of the Traditional Top Hat

Exploring the Origins of the Traditional Top Hat


If we try to envisage which hat most likely encapsulates the true essence of tradition and refinement, then the Top Hat often springs to mind. This iconic style appears to have transcended time itself as it continues to evoke its own unique air of timeless charisma. It also comes with a fascinating history. 

The Top Hat first emerged during the late 18th century as a more refined alternative to both the tricorn and bicorne hats commonly worn at the time. Also referred to as a stovepipe hat, the top hat’s distinctively tall, cylindrical crown set it apart from other styles of the era and it gained sufficient popularity to become the quintessential symbol of social status. While the top hat's precise origins are sometimes the subject of debate; its first real rise to prominence is often attributed to a gentleman named John Hetherington.

The story goes that Hetherington, an English haberdasher, supposedly caused a riot when he first wore a top hat in public. The year was 1797 and he became quite the figure of controversy by appearing on the streets of London wearing what was described as a ‘tall structure of shining lustre calculated to frighten timid people.’ Although Heatherington had merely described it as a ‘silk hat’, its unconventional design and towering crown caused a public commotion and he was subsequently arrested and fined for breach of the peace. It was reported that several women had fainted and young children screamed upon sight of it. It was further reported that another child had broken his arm in amongst all the crowd jostling that ensued. Heatherington was charged with inciting a riot and was required to post a hefty bond. Conversely, the public controversy surrounding his arrest would also thrust the top hat very firmly into the limelight.

The particular crafting of top hats was a meticulous process that required skilled makers who were highly proficient in the art of millinery. Traditionally, the fur used to make top hats was obtained from beaver pelts because they were known for their density and durability. The pelts underwent an intricate process of felting which involved matting the fibres together using heat, moisture, and pressure to create a dense, sturdy felt. The resulting felt was then shaped using wooden hat blocks and steamed to achieve the desired crown height and brim shape. The art of shaping the crown required utmost precision and attention to detail using wooden hat blocks typically made of dense hardwood. These hat blocks were carved to specific measurements and contours to achieve the various shapes whilst the crown's height could be customized to suit individual preferences. Once the felt was shaped over the hat block, the crown would receive its finishing touches. This included the smoothing out of any imperfections to ensure its final, pristine appearance. The brim was shaped by precisely manipulating the felt and trimming it to achieve the desired dimensions. Final flourishes such as decorative bands, ribbons, and feathers were added to enhance the hat's overall aesthetic appeal.

Although the top hat underwent subtle adaptations to keep in step with the changing fashion demands of the 19th century, the black top hat essentially became the standard choice for formal occasions. Grey and brown variants were also available but were considered more as casual alternatives at that time. The top hat's legacy however went on to extend far beyond its fashion appeal. In the field of the arts and theatre for example, the top hat still holds a symbolic significance with magicians as being the standard prop for conjuring rabbits and various objects from its seemingly bottomless interior. In various other stage and theatrical productions, the top hat has very much remained synonymous with traditional showmanship and grandeur to this day. By the early 20th century, more informal attire was on the rise and the top hat was largely reserved for more formal events like weddings, lavish garden parties, or a day at the races. From controversial beginnings through to its prominent association with figures of influence and stature, we are reminded of the top hat’s enduring allure and its evolution as a staple of refined attire.

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