Monday, April 16, 2012

Time Travelers Alert: The Historical History of the Hysterical Top Hat

by Brenda Hibbs


Looking diligently back into The History of Fancy Hats, one can deduce a definite chronological divide between “The Time of TriCorns” and “The Time of Top Hats.” This is important information for Time Travelers, since arriving in the “Time of TriCorns” wearing a 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.

By the late 1700's, however, the style had been refined and was being worn regularly by French “dandies” - gentlemen fashionistas who were principal driver's of French style at the time. They were not then called “top hats,” but, rather “Paris Beau,” or even just “beaver hats,” since beaver was a favorite hat material, as was silk.

Here's where the story starts tending toward the silly... It would be a gross understatement to say that the late 18th century French aristocracy were quite fond of exaggeration when it came to costume. Think dresses 3 times wider than your body, and powdered wigs half again your own height! The same was true of hats, of course, including the top hat. Well- heeled French Ladies would have the style enlarged and softened, then adorned with everything from bird cages to sailing ships, with plenty of large, fluffy ostrich feathers shoved in all over. The men's hats, were, of course, somewhat less overdone, but those caught up in the movement called “Les Incroiables” (the Incredibles) were, for a time, also seen wearing large floppy versions, as seen in the illustration to the right.

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!


By 1797 the top hat had made its way to England, the Aristocratic French and the well-to-do English perpetually racing to outdo each other as fashion plates. The Dandy movement, too, was just as popular in England, the chief model of which was Mr. George Bryan “Beau” Brummel, a man who was reportedly famous for not wearing a wig (somebody decided to put a tax on wig powder!) and, well... being famous. And although the trend in England did not involve hyperbolic hats or skirts as wide as church doors, it did involve specific modes of style, including men's corsets, to achieve just that perfect air of insouciance and laissez-faire. However popular the style (including the top hat) may have been amongst the gentry, though, it was apparently not equally well received in all locales, as we shall see.

As noted in Part I, hatter George Dunnage of Middlesex County is generally credited with the “invention” of the top hat in 1793. (Of course, we Futurians are now the wiser, knowing as we do that the French were wearing them at least a decade earlier!) What Mr. Dunnage actually did was patent it – a very smart gentleman, indeed. Curiously, about a century later, an article printed in an English publication, “The Hatter's Gazette,” told of turbulent events surrounding the appearance of the “first” top hat in London. One would think that people residing in the heart of London would be somewhat less insular, but here's where the tale gets really silly, just a few years before the hat came to be the height of elegance.

The report was of poor John Hetherington, out for a promenade one day when he inadvertently caused not just a “stir” but nearly a riot in what one would have assumed was a “fashionable” district of London called “The Strand.”

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.

Of course, the London Times was correct in their prognostication. By mid-nineteenth century the top hat was ubiquitous at every level of English society, from the lowly chimney sweep to the gentry, and had made its way to the U.S. as well. During the first half of the century there was still a bit of exaggeration involved (witness the “stovepipe” hat favored by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln; stovepipe hats could be as tall as 8” or 9”). But in later decades the height slowly descended to the now-standard five to 6.5 inches, while the top of the hat broadened slightly, giving a more “nipped-in” or tailored look.

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)!

It's commonly known that by the early 20th century top hats were the very pinnacle of formal attire. High-end hats owned by the wealthy would be scrupulously cared for, including being packed in special cases when traveling by train, or on steamer ships such as the Titanic.

By the 1920's and '30's top hats were generally confined to solemn occasions, such as weddings and funerals, black-tie events, and the world of entertainment. It is still such fun to watch Fred Astaire dance in his top hat and tails!

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!

By the blog owner's friend, Brenda Hibbs, peddler of Steampunk fashions and accessories. Visit Brenda at Steam Circus.


  1. There were both low-crowned and high-crowned bevors (as they were called and written) available in England by the last years of the 18th century (and not all were black either). You'll see low-crowned bevors on the heads of many coach-drivers in the old prints and drawings. The low crown is less likely to catch the wind and blow off when atop a coach. You'll also see that the high-crowned bevors caught on in a big way in the Royal Navy--they were part of the uniform of Midshipmen, etc. (For a good look watch Master and Commander, or an episode of Hornblower.)

    They were, as you say, very much a part of the 1790s Revolutionary dress-code. There are pics of Robespierre wearing one--that's pre-visit to Mme la Guillotine.

    Lock's the Hatter, on St. James's Street in Picadilly is still there, still selling hats, and it was from them that George Brummell among many others got his hats...

  2. Wonderful post - informative and such fun. Thanks for this, Brenda.

  3. This is a really fun post. It reminds me of the history of the mad hatter...mercury from the hats (well, dumped into water outside hat factories) was making men ma-a-a-ad...

  4. Thank you all for your kind words. And Susie, thanks for mentioning mad hatters... another silly twist on the whole hat history!

  5. This is great! I think the top hat was a great addition to men's fashion and to certain pieces of women's fashion (saw an incredible riding habit and top hat combo).

    Thanks for sharing!


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