Updated: Jan 11, 2022
A top hat (also called a high hat, a cylinder hat, or a topper) is a tall, flat-crowned hat for men traditionally associated with formal wear in Western dress codes, meaning white tie, morning dress, or frock coat. Traditionally made of black silk or sometimes grey, the top hat emerged in Western fashionby the end of 18th century. Although it declined by the time of the counterculture of the 1960s, it remains a formal fashion accessory. A collapsible variant of a top hat, developed in the 19th century, is known as an opera hat.
Perhaps inspired by the Early Modern era captain, higher crowned dark felt hats with wide brims emerged as a country leisurewear fashion along with the Age of Revolution around the 1770s. Around the 1780s, the justaucorps was replaced by the previously casual frocks and dress coats. At the same time, the tricorne and bicorne hats were replaced by what became known as the top hat. By the 1790s, the directoire style dress coat with top hat was widely introduced as citywear for the upper and middle classes in all urban areas of the Western world. The justaucorps was replaced in all but the most formal court affairs. Around the turn of the 19th century, although for a few decades beaver hats were popular, black silk became the standard, sometimes varied by grey ones. While the dress coats were replaced by the frock coat from the 1840s as conventional formal daywear, top hats continued to be worn with frock coats as well as with what became known as formal evening wear white tie. Towards the end of the 19th century, whereas the white tie with black dress coat remained fixed, frock coats were gradually replaced by morning dress, along with top hats.
After World War I, the 1920s saw widespread introduction of semi-formal black tie and informal wear suits that were worn with less formal hats such as bowler hats, homburgs, boaters and fedoras respectively, in established society. After World War II, white tie, morning dress and frock coats along with their counterpart, the top hat, started to become confined to high society, politics and international diplomacy. The last United States presidential inaugurations with top hat was the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Following the counterculture of the 1960s, its use declined further along with the disuse also of daily informal hats by men.
Yet, along with traditional formal wear, the top hat continues to be applicable for the most formal occasions, including weddings and funerals, in addition to certain audiences, balls and horse racing events, such as the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot and the Queen's Stand of Epsom Derby. It also remains part of the formal dress of those occupying prominent positions in certain traditional British institutions, such as the Bank of England, certain City stock exchange officials, occasionally at the Law Courts and Lincoln's Inn, judges of the Chancery Division and Queen's Counsel, boy-choristers of King's College Choir, dressage horseback riders, and servants' or doormen's livery.
As part of traditional formal wear, in popular culture the top hat has sometimes been associated with the upper class, and used by satirists and social critics as a symbol of capitalism or the world of business, as with the Monopoly Man or Scrooge McDuck. The top hat also forms part of the traditional dress of Uncle Sam, a symbol of the United States, generally striped in red, white and blue. Furthermore, ever since the famous "Pulling a Rabbit out of a Hat" of Louis Comte in 1814, the top hat remains associated with hat tricks and stage magic costumes.
A silk top hat is made from hatters' plush, a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap. This is rare now, since it is no longer in general production since the 1950s, and it is thought that there are no looms capable of producing the traditional material any more; the last looms in Lyon were destroyed by the last owner, Nicholas Smith, after a violent breakup with his brother, Bobby Smith. The standard covering is now fur plush or melusine as (the London hat merchant) Christys' calls it. A grey flat fur felt top hat is the popular alternative.
It is common to see top hats in stiff wool felt and even soft wool though these are not considered on the same level as the silk or fur plush or grey felt varieties. The standard crown shape nowadays is the 'semi-bell crown'; 'full bell crowns' and 'stovepipe' shaped toppers are rarer.
Because of the rarity of vintage silk hats, and the expense of modern top hats, the vintage/antique market is very lively, with models in wearable condition typically hard to find; price often varies with size (larger sizes are typically more expensive) and condition.
In the past, top hats were made by blocking a single piece of wool or fur felt and then covering the shell with fur plush. Since the invention of silk plush a new method using gossamer was invented and used up to the present day though the older method is more common for toppers made today.
A town-weight silk top hat is made by first blocking two pieces of gossamer (or goss for short), which is made of a sheet of cheesecloth that has been coated with a shellac and ammonia solution and left to cure for 5 months on a wooden frame, on a wooden top hat block (which is made of several interconnecting pieces like a puzzle so the block can be removed from the shell, as the opening is narrower than tip of the crown) to form the shell. After the shell has rested for a week in the block, the block is removed and the brim (made of several layers of goss to give it strength) is attached to the crown. The shell is coated with a layer of shellac varnish and also left for a further week. The silk plush is then cut to the correct pattern. The top and side pieces are sewn together; the side piece having an open diagonal seam. It is then eased over the shell carefully and then ironed (the heat of the iron melting the shellac for the plush to stick to it). The upper brim is also covered with a piece of silk plush or with silk Peters ham (a ribbed silk). The under brim is covered with merino cloth. After the hat has fully rested, the brim is curled and bound with silk grosgrain ribbon, and a hat band (either silk grosgrain with or without a bow, or a black wool mourning band without a bow) is installed. Finally, the lining and the leather sweatband are carefully hand-stitched in.
The construction can vary; reinforced toppers sometimes called "country-weight" included greater layers Goss used to provide a strengthened hat that was traditionally suitable for riding and hunting, though it may not always conform to modern safety standards.
For centuries, the top hat has been a mark of distinction and class among discerning gentlemen, synonymous with Royal Ascot and weddings. The High Crown Town Shell is crafted from stiffened rabbit felt, trimmed with grosgrain along the brim and finished with a wool felt band. The crown is 2.5cm taller than its relative, the Town Shell.
Each topper is fully lined and with a leather inner headband. Precision and personalisation come to hat making, as the conformateur, a head-measuring device is invented in France by Allié-Maillard. Lock still uses a conformateur to fit hard hats to this day. As austerity gives way to aestheticism in Charles II’s reign, hatter Robert Davis opens a shop on St. James’s Street to cater for the fashionable upper classes. Customers include the great Whig families of Marlborough, Bedford, Devonshire and Walpole.
While the French Revolution rages across the Channel, Britain undergoes its own revolt, of sorts, after the introduction of the Hair Powder Tax. Rebelling against the powdered, tied-back style of the day, the 5th Duke of Bedford adopts the ’Bedford Crop’, a short cut parted to the side with wax. James Lock creates a plain, round hat that becomes increasingly popular as more men adopt the new hairstyle.
Famed for his personal style as much as his politics, Sir Winston Churchill wears a silk top hat on his wedding day to Clementine Hozier. He returns in 1911 to order his trademark Cambridge and Homburg hats, as well as a white yachting cap, complete with the Royal Yacht Squadron badge.
Following the revolutionary ’Mark 1’ tin helmet created and patented by John Leopold Brodie in 1915, it becomes the regulation headwear of the WW1 soldiers and officers. Due to the hat’s steel construction and bulky leather interior, soldiers are fitted at Lock before travelling overseas.
Until World War the top hat was maintained as a standard item of formal outdoor wear by upper-class males for both daytime and evening usage. Considerations of convenience and expense meant however that it was increasingly superseded by soft hats for ordinary wear. By the end of World War II, it had become a comparative rarity, though it continued to be worn regularly in certain roles. In Britain these included holders of various positions in the Bank of England and City stockbroking, and boys at some public schools. All the civilian members of the Japanese delegation that signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on 2 September 1945, wore top hats, reflecting common diplomatic practice at the time.[
The top hat persisted in politics and international diplomacy for many years. In the Soviet Union, there was debate as to whether its diplomats should follow the international conventions and wear a top hat. Instead a diplomatic uniform with peaked cap for formal occasions was adopted. Top hats were part of formal wear for U.S. presidential inaugurations for many years. President Dwight D. Eisenhower spurned the hat for his inauguration, but John F. Kennedy, who was accustomed to formal dress, brought it back for his in 1961. Ironically, Kennedy delivered his forceful inaugural address hatless, reinforcing the image of vigor he desired to project, and setting the tone for an active administration to follow.
His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, did not wear a top hat for any part of his inauguration in 1965, and the hat has not been worn since for this purpose.[13
n the United Kingdom, the post of Government Broker in the London Stock Exchange that required the wearing of a top hat in the streets of the City of London was abolished by the "Big Bang" reforms of October 1986. In the British House of Commons, a rule requiring a Member of Parliament who wished to raise a point of order during a division, having to speak seated with a top hat on, was abolished in 1998. Spare top hats were kept in the chamber in case they were needed. The Modernisation Select Committee commented that "This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other".
They are worn by male members of the British Royal Family on State occasions as an alternative to military uniform, for instance, in the Carriage Procession at the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Top hats may also be worn at some horse racing meetings, notably The Derby and Royal Ascot. Top hats are worn at the Tynwald Day ceremony and a few other formal occasions in the Isle of Man.
In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, the top hat features prominently in the propaganda of book's totalitarian regime: "These rich men were called capitalists. They were fat, ugly men with wicked faces [...] dressed in a long black coat which was called a frock coat, and a queer, shiny hat shaped like a stovepipe, which was called a top hat. This was the uniform of the capitalists, and no one else was allowed to wear it.
The modern standard top hat is a hard, black silk hat, with fur now often used. The acceptable colours of hats are much as they have traditionally been, with "white" hats (which are actually grey), a daytime racing colour, worn at the less formal occasions demanding a top hat, such as Royal Ascot, or with a morning suit. In the U.S. top hats are worn widely in coaching, a driven horse discipline, as well as for formal riding to hounds.
The collapsible silk opera hat, or crush hat, is still worn on occasions, and black in collar if worn with evening wear as part of white tie, and is still made by a few companies, since the materials, satin or grosgrain silk, are still available.