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A Timeline Of Top Hats

The first sightings of a man wearing a “terrifying” top hat had women fainting, dogs barking, and a fine issued to the offender.

Image: Photo by Remy Gieling on Unsplash

An iconic piece of headwear, the top hat conjures up images of a respectable, well-to-do man of industry from the Victorian era. A tall and cylindrical hat that is often crafted from silk and mounted on a felt base, its dignified design denotes wealth, prestige, and sophistication. Its humble beginnings, however, could not be further from this common perspective.

1797: The First Top Hat

At the end of the 18th century, English milliner John Hetherington made headlines when he stepped out of his workshop wearing a never-before-seen top hat. The story reports that he was later arrested for having appeared on the Public Highway wearing “a tall structure with a shining luster, and calculated to frighten timid people”. Among the bizarre chaos that unfolded, the journalist reports that children screamed, women fainted, and dogs barked when faced with this threatening attire. Although this is believed to be the first-ever sighting, historians argue that the top hat is simply an updated version of the medieval sugar-loaf hat that was worn for centuries.  

The British Newspaper Archive

Image: The British Newspaper Archive

Early 19th Century: Acceptance of Top Hats

While Hetherington failed to make a good impression when he infamously pioneered the top hat, the style later gained acceptance when it was worn by English dandy George “Beau” Brummel. This 19th-century celebrity-turned-fashion-icon was praised for his elegant and austere dress.

1823: The Creation of the Opera Hat

Despite the rising fame of the classic top hat, Antoine Gibus’ modification proved a popular alternative. The opera hat featured a collapsible design so that it could be conveniently stored away for travel and in less spacious venues such as theaters and opera houses. 

1850: When Top Hats Really Took Off

The top hat movement really gained momentum in the middle of the 19th century, when Prince Albert started wearing one in public. Following this fashion rage, top hats became a wardrobe staple among gentlemen of the upper class in Victorian times.  

Top Hat

Image: Photo by Leeroy Johnson on Unsplash

1900: Top Hats In a New Fabric & Setting

Up until the 20th century, felted beaver skin had been the top hat material of choice due to its waterproof properties. However, men’s fashion at the time had practically wiped out the beavers, so silk became the next go-to fabric for contemporary top hats. From this period onward, this silk version would only be worn for special occasions like weddings and dances. Prestigious private school Eton College even removed top hats from their uniform list.   

21st Century: Have We Abandoned the Top Hat?

Nowadays, top hats are usually reserved for equestrian settings, such as the Derby and Royal Ascot. That said, the truly fashion forward can bring the top hat or any hat back into style.

Sources:
sugar-loaf hats | Welsh Costume / Gwisg Gymreig (wordpress.com)
Brummell, George (Beau) | Encyclopedia.com
History of the top hat | Silk Top Hats .eu
'Terrifying' Top Hat Causes Sensation - On This Day
Etonians Shed Top Hat and Tails Outside School - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

   

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