Top hat history became exciting when John Hetherington became known as the first person to wear the “high” hat. The idea that anyone should do so supposedly caused his family to strongly advise him against wearing it. But, he could not be deterred and “forth he sallied.” It happened on a freezing January day in 1797 around noon. That was when Hetherington stepped into the street from his haberdashery shop on the Strand.
In the 1700s, the Strand was one of the busiest streets in London, and when people saw Hetherington and his unusually high hat they “stopped and gazed in wonder.” He had not gone far when a large crowd surrounded him, and before long the crowd grew into a “howling mob.” Reports are that two women fainted, dogs howled, and children screamed. All this commotion attracted the attention of the constable, and after a boy fell and his arm was broken by the crowd, Hetherington earned an arraignment before the Lord Mayor for “breach of peace and inciting to riot.”
When Hetherington was brought before the bench he declared that “in extenuation of his crime … he had not violated any law of the kingdom, but was merely exercising a right to appear in a head-dress of his own design — a right not denied to any Englishman.”
Because of this incident word got around that Hetherington invented the top hat, but it’s not true. The top hat descended from the sugarloaf hat, and the first top hat in England was not created by Hetherington but by George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex, in 1793. The top hat became so popular by the 1840s, any Englishman who was anybody was wearing it, although they were not getting the same reaction as Hetherington got on that cold January day. The top hat of the 1840s represented status, wealth, and respectability. It was considered “the” hat for the bourgeois man. According to one source, a hat meant everything.
“The material, shape, and style of the covering … [a man] puts upon his head … [is the] value … put upon him by the world at large … he is approved of or condemned by his immediate fellows [all based on his hat].”
Just as royalty had a crown, a top hat served as a “crown” to the ordinary man, and the “time-honoured ‘beaver'” was as popular at the time of the Plantagenets as it was in the late 1800s. Early versions of the beaver were felted chiefly from “the fur of rabbits.” After felting it was “formed into a conical cap with a join down one side.” Another felted conical cap was placed inside it with a join on the opposite side. Felting continued with these two pieces and any extra felt needed was “worked in.” The crown was then “flattened, and the brim worked out, while the whole structure … stiffened by the application of glue inside.” At this point the hat was shaped with “moisture and hot irons, while the brim [was] carefully trimmed to the required form with a knife.” This left a very rough nap. The rough nap was then smoothed down, as shown in the illustration at the left. The hat was further finished by binding the brim with silk and “added height was given to the hat by narrowing the band … to … half an inch in width.”
By the late 1800s, the felt hat was created in a completely different way. It required “delicate machinery” to achieve the felting. Machinery took the finer parts of the rabbit’s fur and blew it onto a revolving cone with perforations. When suction was applied, the fur collected and matted together forming a complex material. When enough of this complex material accumulated, a hot spray was applied to further increase the felting action, which then achieved the rough hat, as shown in the illustration to the right.
Top hats got their individual names for a variety of reasons. For instance, the hat’s shape, height, or size often contributed to its name. There was the Aylesbury, whose style was known for its “gentlemanlike shape,” the Tilbury that was claimed to have been designed for short or round faces, and the Turf hat that was said to be created to “make a man, if about forty, look about ten or eleven years younger, and an inch or two taller.” The top hat was also synonymous with “topper” and vice versa. Other names for top hats included the anguish tube, beaver hat, cat-skin, chimney-pot (shown), cylinder hat, stove-pipe, tile, high top, low top, John Bull, caroler, Oxonian, or Collegian. Hat brims also resulted in the naming of hats: There were hats known as bent curls, rolled curls, or plain-edge curls, as well as the Anglesea curl.
Another interesting top hat that appeared in the 1800s was the collapsible top hat. It was first patented in 1812 and perfected in 1840 by Antoine Gibus. It became fashionable because the chimney-pot (shown above) and the stove-pipe (shown to the right) were difficult to carry, impossible to stow under chairs, and bulky to store in cloakrooms. Gibus’s collapsible hat soon acquired three names: the “gibus” named for its creator, “opera hat” because it could be stored under a seat at the opera, and the “claque,” a French word for “slap” and supposedly the sound the hat made when it collapsed.
After the tall, straight “stove-pipe” hat reached its maximum height, hats gradually became shorter and then more belled. Eventually they arrived at the John Bull shape, shown to the left. This hat acquired its named from John Bull, a character in John Arbuthnot’s 1712 The History of John Bull. However, it was John Tenniel who really popularized John Bull in his humorous Punch cartoons. Tenniel used John Bull — a portly man who wore light-colored breeches, a tailcoat, and a shallow-crowned top hat to indicate his middle class identity — to represent the national personification of the United Kingdom.
Besides the John Bull hat, there was also the “Dandy” hat. This was a “superb” constructed hat that combined both height and bell. One advantage to the Dandy, shown at the right, was the fact it was unlikely to blow it off a person’s head because of a leather band inside the hat that could be laced tightly at the back, similar to a “hunting-topper.” When this “grip [was] maintained on the crown of the head … the hat [was] thereby prevented from being easily blown off.” Moreover, the grip also prevented the hat from touching the top of a man’s head or, more importantly, from accidentally falling over a man’s eyes, which was useful when hunting, and it was said that “many a hunting-man … owed his life to this hat.”
Several top hats and styles flourished in popularity at the same time, and they had a tendency to come in and go out of fashion at will. For example, before beaver hats went out of fashion various silk hats were worn. Very small brimmed hats became popular by 1837, and while they were popular the “bell and taper top [ hats]” and the cricketer’s silk hats also excited hat wearers. By 1844, a more pronounced bell — one that was previously worn in the 1830s — regained popularity and that started a repeating round of hat fashions with the old “stove-pipe” becoming popular once again in 1847 and then the “chimney-pot” taking center stage once more in 1851.
Although the top hat was fading from the fashion scene in England by the end of the 1800s, it was still be worn. However, public opinion in 1900 encouraged the “tall hat to be discarded … in … very hot weather.” This discarding of the top hat “perhaps, really marked for the first time, … [that] liveried servants were furnished by thoughtful masters with the same comfortable straw hats they had themselves been constrained to adopt.” Other people were also saying good-bye to the hot summer top hat. For example, police exchanged their top hats for white cotton hats, and overall there was a marked increase in the adoption of the Panama hat for summer after 1900.
Top hats are still worn today, although infrequently compared to the 1800s. Our modern “top hat is a hard, black silk hat, with fur.” The colors of these modern hats are similar to early colors (white or black), and, in England, they are worn at informal occasions, daytime races, or with morning suits. In the United States top hats are often seen during coaching activities. One other popular time for the top hat to appear is on Groundhog Day, a holiday celebrated on 2 February since 1887. Punxsutawney Phil (a mythical groundhog) determines if spring will come early based on whether or not he sees his shadow. The annual ceremony with Phil is conducted every year in Punxsutawney, Philadelphia, by Groundhog Day Club members wearing top hats.
- “Fashion and the Mob” in Evening Post, 13 September 1913
“Gibus, Opera Hat,” on McCord Museum
- Lock, Charles G. Warnford, ed., Spons’ Encyclopaedia of the Industrial Arts, Manufactures, and Raw Commercial Products, Vol. II, 1882
- The Dovorian, 1883
- The English Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 25, 1901
- “The First Bell-Topper” in Wairarapa Daily Times, 7 December 1904
- The Habits of Good Society, 1863
- The Whole Art of Dress, 1830