Top Hat could be disastrous, as could, of course, the opposite! And top hats have such an interestingly dichotomous lineage – both silly and elegant! Silly because, as we shall see, they have gone through amazing extremes of fashion on their way to becoming the dignified head wear familiar to Upper-Crusteans the world over.
Although their invention is generally attributed to haberdasher George Dunnage in 1793 (more on that in Part II), and thought of by most as an English conception, they can actually be seen in French etchings as early as the 1780's. There had been a hat called a “Capotain” in style since the 1590's (can you imagine a style with 200-year staying power?? Time travelers, take note), which was middlin' tall and slightly conical, with a somewhat narrow brim. We in the U.S. tend to think of them as “pilgrim hats;” they were often adorned with a centered buckle on the hatband.
So, you may ask, how did this caricature of what would become the ultimate in distinctive menswear morph into the perfect hat for any special occasion? Stay tuned to Part II for tales of women swooning and screaming, courts, coppers and jail, patents and royalty!
Apparently there were women screaming and fainting. Dogs barking and children crying. Fear, confusion and flying fruit. Horses bolting and crowds surging (there is even a report of one boy's arm being broken as a result)! Quite the ruckus! All just because Mr. Hetherington decided to take a leisurely stroll down the thoroughfare wearing his shiny new Top Hat.
Evidently the constabulary was called in to calm things down and take Mr. Hetherington off to court. There, in lieu of jail, he was fined 500 Pounds (the equivalent of $10,000 today) for a “Breach of the Peace,” with one officer stating, “Hetherington 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.” Eventually the story made the front page of the London Times, which stated, “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.” It was also recorded that a law was passed against wearing such hats because they “frightened timid people.”
Of course, despite Mr. Hetherington's escapade, it wasn't long before top hats were all the rage in England.
For a time in the Victorian era, top hats were actually mandatory for certain lines of work, such as doormen and carriage drivers.
Wikipedia state that in some cases it was even “worn daily for formal wear, such as in London at various positions in the Bank of England and City stockbroking, or boys at some public schools.
In 1829, London's Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel initiated a new police force (called “Peelers” at the time) whose uniform consisted of blue tail-coats and top hats, no doubt adding to the perceived “authority” of the headwear. Sir Roberts' variously instituted police forces eventually rendered London's famous “Bobbies,” sans the top hats (but incorporating another awesome hat-type, the pith helmet)!
Unbeknownst to many in our modern age of tablets that aren't pills, mice that don't eat cheese and monitors that aren't lizards, though, top hats are actually seeing somewhat of a resurgence. They are still with us, of course, in their usual guises, worn by prom-goers and pall bearers, carriage drivers and ringmasters.
But they can be seen more and more frequently of late in the newly-growing costume genre called “Steampunk” (also known as “Vernian” or “Neo-Victorian”). These costume hats have really become an art form of their own, coming in all sizes and shapes from exaggerated to mini, highly decorated to elegantly simple, and most commonly seen sporting a pair of goggles!
So, why not surprise your friends by showing up in a top hat at your next formal event? Or, even better, play along with the theme next time you go to an old fashioned fair or reenactment!