Top hat

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Austin Lane Crothers, 46th Governor of Maryland (1908–1912), wearing a top hat

A top hat, beaver hat, high hat, silk hat, cylinder hat, chimney pot hat or stove pipe hat,[1] sometimes also known by the nickname "topper", is a tall, flat-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, worn by men from the latter part of the 18th to the middle of the 20th century. By the end of World War II, it had become a rarity in ordinary dress, though it continued to be worn in specific instances, such as state funerals, also by those occupying prominent positions in the Bank of England, by certain City stock exchange officials and occasionally when passing between the Law Courts and Lincoln's Inn, London by judges of the Chancery Division and Queen's Counsel.

As of the early 21st century, top hats are still worn at some society events in the UK, notably at church weddings and racing meetings attended by members of the royal family, such as Royal Ascot. They remain part of the formal uniform of certain British institutions, such as Eton College and the boy-choristers of King's College Choir. They are usually worn with morning dress or white tie, in dressage, and as part of servants' or doormen's livery.

The top hat was frequently associated with the upper class, and was used by satirists and social critics as a symbol of capitalism or the world of business. The use of the top hat persisted in politics and international diplomacy for many years, including at U.S. presidential inaugurations, the last being worn at the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1961. 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.

The top hat is also associated with stage magic, both in traditional costume and especially the use of hat tricks.


Carle Vernet's 1796 painting showing two decadent French "Incredibles" greeting each other, one with what appears to be a top hat.

According to fashion historians, the top hat may have descended directly from the sugarloaf hat;[2] otherwise it is difficult to establish provenance for its creation.[3] Gentlemen began to replace the tricorne with the top hat at the end of the 18th century; a painting by Charles Vernet of 1796, Un Incroyable, shows a French dandy (one of the Incroyables et Merveilleuses) with such a hat.[4] The first silk top hat in England is credited to George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex, in 1793.[5] The invention of the top hat is often erroneously credited to a haberdasher named John Hetherington.

Within 30 years top hats had become popular with all social classes, with even workmen wearing them. At that time those worn by members of the upper classes were usually made of felted beaver fur; the generic name "stuff hat" was applied to hats made from various non-fur felts. The hats became part of the uniforms worn by policemen and postmen (to give them the appearance of authority); since these people spent most of their time outdoors, their hats were topped with black oilcloth.[6]

Between the latter part of 18th century and the early part of the 19th century, felted beaver fur was slowly replaced by silk "hatter's plush", though the silk topper met with resistance from those who preferred the beaver hat. The 1840s and the 1850s saw it reach its most extreme form, with ever-higher crowns and narrow brims. The stovetop hat was a variety with mostly straight sides, while one with slightly convex sides was called the "chimney pot".[7] The style we presently refer to as the stovepipe was popularized in the United States by Abraham Lincoln during his presidency; though it is postulated[by whom?] that he may never have called it stovetop himself, but merely a silk hat or a plug hat. It is said[by whom?] that Lincoln would keep important letters inside the hat.[8] One of Lincoln's top hats is kept on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.[9]

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, William Harrison, John Scott Russell and others at the launching of the SS Great Eastern, London 1857
Abraham Lincoln in his distinctive "stovetop" silk hat at Antietam, 1862

During the 19th century, the top hat developed from a fashion into a symbol of urban respectability, and this was assured when Prince Albert started wearing them in 1850; the rise in popularity of the silk plush top hat possibly led to a decline in beaver hats, sharply reducing the size of the beaver trapping industry in North America, though it is also postulated[by whom?] that the beaver numbers were also reducing at the same time. Whether it directly affected or was coincidental to the decline of the beaver trade is debatable.

James Laver once observed that an assemblage of "toppers" resembled factory chimneys and thus added to the mood of the industrial era. In England, post-Brummel dandies went in for flared crowns and swooping brims. Their counterparts in France, known as the "Incroyables", wore top hats of such outlandish dimensions that there was no room for them in overcrowded cloakrooms until the invention of the collapsible top hat.[10][11]

Collapsible top-hats

The collapsible Gibus

On May 5, 1812, a London hatter called Thomas Francis Dollman patented a design for "an elastic round hat" supported by ribs and springs. His patent was described as:

An elastic round hat, which "may be made of beaver, silk, or other materials." "The top of the crown and about half an inch from the top" as well as "the brim and about an inch, the crown from the bottom" are stiffened in the ordinary manner. The rest of the hat "is left entirely without stiffening," and is kept in shape by ribs of any suitable material "fastened horizontally to the inside of the crown," and by an elastic steel spring from three to four inches long and nearly half an inch wide "sewed on each side of the crown in the inside in an upright position." Then packed up for travelling, "the double ribbon fastened under the band is to be pulled over the top of the crown to keep it in a small compass."[12]

Some sources have taken this to describe an early folding top hat,[13][14] although it is not explicitly stated whether Dollman's design was specifically for male or female headgear. Dollman's patent expired in 1825.[15] In France, around 1840, Antoine Gibus's design for a spring-loaded collapsible top-hat proved so popular that hats made to it became known as gibus.[10][16] They were also often called opera hats due to the common practice of storing them in their flattened state under one's seat at the opera, though the term can also refer to any tall formal men's hat.[citation needed] The characteristic snapping sound heard upon opening a gibus suggested a third name, the chapeau claque, "claque" being the French word for "slap".[17]


In a cartoon by John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, a top hat is placed in a deliberate anachronism on the head of the Ancient Roman reformer Tiberius Gracchus, in order to compare him to 19th Century British politicians.

A silk top hat is made from hatters' plush, a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap.[18] 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.[19] 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 petersham (a ribbed silk). The underbrim 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.[20]

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.

20th century

The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy as seen from behind. The few top hats in the crowd can be distinguished by the shininess of the hat's flat crown

Until World War I 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.[21]

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. Iconically, 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 1964, and the hat has not been worn since for this purpose.[22]

In 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.[23] 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".[24]

Although Eton College has abandoned the top hat as part of its uniform, top hats are still worn by "Monitors" at Harrow School with their Sunday dress uniform.[25] 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.[26] Top hats may also be worn at some horse racing meetings, notably The Derby[27] and Royal Ascot.[28] The stylish Palladin played by Richard Boone on the TV series "Have Gun Will Travel" wore a non-black tophat.

21st century

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 color if worn with evening wear as part of white tie,[29] and is still made by a few companies, since the materials, satin or grosgrain silk, are still available. The other alternative hat for eveningwear is the normal hard shell.[30]

The British-American musician Slash has sported a top hat since he was in Guns N' Roses, a look that has become iconic for him.[31] Panic! at the Disco's Brendon Urie is also a frequent wearer of top hats. He has been known to wear them in previous live performances on their Nothing Rhymes with Circus tour and in the music videos, "The Ballad of Mona Lisa" and "I Write Sins Not Tragedies". Top hats have also become ubiquitous among the steampunk subculture, often adorned with goggles and feathers.

The members of the "Inner Circle" of the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania Groundhog Club wear top hats on February 2 of every year when they perform the Groundhog Day ceremonies with Punxsutawney Phil.

Steampunk culture also incorporates the top hat into accepted headgear choices, though top hats worn in such a context are sometimes made of leather or similar materials and, now and then, even have simulated gears or other adornments secured to them.


Masonic Worshipful Master Bill Edgerton wearing his traditional top hat

In Freemasonry, as practiced in North American lodges, top hats are often associated with the position of Worshipful Master as he is the only member allowed the privilege of wearing one, or another appropriate head covering to signify his leadership within the lodge. It is also common for a Worshipful Master to receive top-hat-related trinkets and gifts on either the day of his installation or as a going away present.[32] In other countries, especially in certain systems in Germany, top hats are worn by all members of the lodge.


In some synagogues, the president and honorary officers may wear a top hat on Shabbat or the great festivals. The custom of wearing a top hat, or tzylinder in the Yiddish language, originated in 19th-century England, replacing the wig and tricorn hat. The custom became widespread in Europe until The Holocaust. In some traditional Sephardi synagogues, members of the congregation may also wear top hats on special occasions.[33] The custom is said to have started at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London on a hot day, when the Chazzan was preparing for a service and decided that it was too hot to wear his wig, throwing it out of the window in a fit of bad temper. He then found that his tricorn hat was too big, as it had been made to fit over the wig, and so wore his top hat instead.[34]

In popular culture

J. M. Flagg's 1917 poster of Uncle Sam
a traditional snowman decorated with various articles, including a top hat
Snowmen are often seen wearing top hats.
Rich Uncle Pennybags, as depicted on the cover of the first edition of the Parker Brothers Monopoly game that gave the character a name. He personifies financial monopoly and wears a top hat.

Popular symbols

  • A top hat, frequently colored red, white and blue, or with stars and stripes similar to those on the American flag, is part of the regular costume of Uncle Sam, a symbol of the United States.
  • For satirists and political cartoonists, the top hat was a convenient symbol of the upper class, business and capitalism. A character wearing a top hat would be instantly recognized by the viewer as a member of the oligarchy.
  • Snowmen are often depicted wearing top hats.


  • The Mad Hatter from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is commonly depicted wearing a top hat with a piece of paper which contains the inscription "10/6", which would have been the hat's price in old Pounds sterling (ten shillings and sixpence, or half a guinea).
  • The children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory depicts Willy Wonka as wearing a top hat, and both Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp depict him that way in the film adaptations.
  • Mandrake the Magician, a comic strip character, wears a top hat; as does Lord Snooty from the British children's comic The Beano.
  • Raskolnikov from the novel Crime and Punishment wore a top hat from Zimmerman's shop before killing the pawn broker, but thought better of wearing it to the murder, since it was already unusual and thus too conspicuous in 1860s Russia.[35]
  • Sir Topham Hatt, is one of three characters of the same name in Rev. W. Awdry's series of railway novels for children about the Island of Sodor, based on the Isle of Man's railways. Known in Britain as the Fat Director or Fat Controller, he is always depicted wearing a top hat, a form of dress worn by senior railway employees until the late 1950s.
  • Dickens did not describe the hat worn by the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist in detail, but Cruikshank opted to illustrate the young pickpocket in a rather battered top hat, and the idea has been taken up in almost all subsequent adaptations of the story.
  • In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four the protagonist notes that in the totalitarian regime's cartoons, capitalists are always depicted with a top hat and that "even on the barricades, the capitalists still seemed to cling to their top hats". A historical propaganda text includes the following: "The capitalists were fat, ugly men with wicked faces. They were wearing 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. That was the uniform of the capitalists and no one else was allowed to wear it".[36] However, the old "prole" which the protagonist later meets contradicts this statement, recounting that working-class people also occasionally wore top hats and that he wore one himself at his sister-in-law's funeral - though it was only hired for the occasion.[37]


  • The 1935 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy film Top Hat features songs by Irving Berlin, including "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails", in which Astaire sings: "I'm puttin' on my top hat / Tyin' up my white tie / Brushin' off my tails". In the choreography by Hermes Pan, Astaire is accompanied by a male chorus all wearing formal attire, including top hats, who Astaire "guns down" one by one using his cane as an ersatz firearm.
  • In the 1966 Western El Dorado, the character Mississippi (played by James Caan) is notoriously best known for his top hat, which constitutes a running joke throughout the whole film because it presents a local peculiarity. Modern replicas of this type of hat have become popularly known, in conjunction with the movie, as the "El Dorado hat".
  • Scrooge McDuck, protagonist of animated Disney series DuckTales, is frequently seen wearing a top hat.

Stage magic

  • Top hats are associated with stage magic, in particular the hat trick. In 1814, the French magician Comte became the first conjurer on record to pull a white rabbit out of a top hat[38] though this is also attributed to the much later John Henry Anderson.[39]


  • The character Rich Uncle Pennybags in the board game Monopoly, wears a top hat. In addition, a top hat is one of the game's tokens, used by players to mark their position as they progress around the board.
  • Professor Layton of the game series of the same name wears a top hat. His hat also became a logo for the games.
  • Jacob Frye of Assassin's Creed: Syndicate wears a top hat when he is not in stealth mode.
  • The Mountebank, Victor Wolcott of Assassin's Creed 3's multiplayer mode also appears to be wearing a top hat, despite the game taking place during the American Revolutionary War circa 1776.
  • Top hats make several appearances in the multiplayer first-person shooter Team Fortress 2, most commonly the cosmetic item known as "The Ghastly Gibus," but other cosmetics use top hats in their designs as well.
  • Freddy Fazbear of Five Nights at Freddy's also wear top hats, as do his other incarnations.
  • A top hat is available to The Hunter as an attire piece pick up in the game "Bloodborne".


See also



  1. ^ Webster's II New College Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Reference Books. 1995. p. 848. ISBN 0-395-96214-5. 
  2. ^ Sewell, Charlotte (1983). Clothes in History. Wayland. Ltd.
  3. ^ Kilgour, Ruth Edwards (1954). A Pageant of Hats Ancient and Modern.
  4. ^ "Le Centenaire du Chapeau". La Mode Pratique (6): 66–7. 6 February 1897.  (referenced in Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity by Ulrich Lehmann)
  5. ^ "The First Silk Top Hat" (PDF). Ascot Top Hats Ltd News Release. 16 June 2009.  (referenced in Ascot Top Hats)
  6. ^ Paterson, Michael; Peter Ackroyd (2007). Voices from Dickens' London. David & Charles. p. 45. ISBN 0-7153-2723-2. 
  7. ^ Hoffmann, Frank W.; William G. Bailey (1994-07-07). Fashion & merchandising fads. Haworth Press. p. 260. ISBN 1-56023-031-2. 
  8. ^ Benjamin P. Thomas (26 September 2008). Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. SIU Press. pp. 39–. ISBN 978-0-8093-2887-1. 
  9. ^ "Abraham Lincoln's top hat". Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  10. ^ a b ""Gibus" Opera Hat". McCord Museum. Retrieved 2013-07-06. 
  11. ^ Cunnington, C Willett and Phyllis (1959). Handbook of English Costume in the Nineteenth Century. Faber. p. 93. 
  12. ^ Patents for inventions. Abridgments of specifications. Patent Office. 1874. 
  13. ^ de Bono, Edward (1974). Eureka! An illustrated history of inventions from the wheel to the computer: a London Sunday times encyclopedia. London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. p. 88. 
  14. ^ Sichel, Marion (1978). The Regency. London: Batsford. pp. 24–25. ISBN 9780713403428. 
  15. ^ Herbert, Luke (1827). The Register of Arts, and Journal of Patent Inventions, Volume 4. p. 64. 
  16. ^ "Hat Glossary (G)". Archived from the original on 2009-12-02. Retrieved 2009-10-25. 
  17. ^ "History of Hats". Lock Hatters. Retrieved 2013-07-06. 
  18. ^ Oxford English Dictionary (1989). 2nd. Ed.
  19. ^ Storey, Nicholas, History of Men's Fashion. pp. 138, 139
  20. ^ Harmsworth's Universal Encyclopaedia (1920), Hat, p. 3049
  21. ^ "Reports of General MacArthur; MacArthur in Japan: The Occupation: Military Phase: Volume 1 Supplement: Chapter 2: Plate 12: MacArthur Takes the Surrender, 2 September 1945". Retrieved 2014-08-15. 
  22. ^ Inaugural traditions Accessed June 17, 2011
  23. ^ "1 September 2007 - Obituary: Sir Nigel Althaus (the last Government Broker)". The Independent. 2007-09-01. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  24. ^ "Some Traditions and Customs of the House" (PDF). House of Commons Information Office. July 2010.  (p. 8)
  25. ^ Harrow School (Uniform)
  26. ^ Emily Allen (2012-06-05). "5 June 2012: ''Queen returns to Buckingham Palace...''". Daily Mail. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  27. ^ "The Racing Post - Epsom Derby Dress Code". Archived from the original on 2014-03-03. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  28. ^ "Royal Ascot: ''Racegoers Guide Dress Code ''". Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  29. ^ Croonborg, Frederick (1907). The Blue Book of Men's Tailoring. New York and Chicago: Croonborg Sartorial Co. ISBN 0-442-21763-3. 
  30. ^ Apparel Arts. "Top Hat Etiquette". Archived from the original on 2012-02-27. 
  31. ^ "SLASH: 'An Intimate Portrait' Book Due In October". Aug 28, 2012. Over the past twenty-five years, Slash's cool stage presence, gloriously unkempt hair, iconic top hat, and soulful guitar virtuosity has been the epitome of contemporary hard rock. 
  32. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-06-06. 
  33. ^ Raymond Apple, ''The Great Synagogue: A History of Sydney's Big Shule'', University of New South Wales Press 2008, ISBN 978-086840-927-6 (p.144). Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  34. ^ "Top hats in shule – Ask the Rabbi". OzTorah. 2013-11-21. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  35. ^ Lourie, Richard (1992-05-26). "Raskolnikov Says the Darndest Things". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  36. ^ George Orwell, "Nineteen Eighty Four", Part 1, Ch. 7.
  37. ^ George Orwell, "Nineteen Eighty Four", Part 1, Ch. 8.
  38. ^ Colin McDowell, Hats: Status, Style, and Glamour, 1992, p. 74. ISBN 0-8478-1572-2.
  39. ^ QI, A Series, Episode 3

Further reading

  • Steinberg, Neil, Hatless Jack — The President, the Fedora and the Death of the Hat, 2005, Granta Books

External links

  •, vintage footage of how silk top hats are made by Patey.
  • Guide to Buying a Top Hat by Charles Rupert Tsua

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