It is fair to say that the top hat is the greatest item of headgear in the known world. It is possible that there are better forms of headgear at, say, the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, but it seems unlikely. It’s formal and yet flamboyant. Distinctive and yet instantly recognisable. It’s a symbol is what it is. Why, I myself am wearing one even as I type this.
It’s unknown precisely who invented the top hat – like most articles of clothing, it most likely evolved from earlier fashions. In the case of the top hat, its obvious ancestor was the sugar loaf hat, which you’d probably know from Welsh national dress, although they were fashionable across Europe from the middle ages onwards.
The mighty topper is believed to be of French or possibly German origin. However, one version of history actually has it as a British invention, originating on the Strand (down which we may all go and, if there is time, have a banana). According to the story, the hat was premiered on 15th January 1797 by a hatter named John Hetherington. It caused a sensation. Well, more accurately, it caused a riot. An actual riot – women fainted, dogs barked and in the mob a young lad had his arm broken. Hetherington was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor. He was charged with a breach of the peace, despite claiming to be “merely exercising the right to appear in a headdress of his own design – a right not denied to any Englishman.”
His Worship was not impressed, and Hetherington was fined £500 for his trouble.
If I’m honest, I have trouble believing certain aspects of the story. While it is possible that a gent in a top hat would be an astonishing sight, I couldn’t see it causing an actual riot. And £500 seems remarkably steep, given that £1 was a pretty good weekly wage in those days. Perhaps, given the more likely French origin of the hat, he was taken to be impersonating a Frenchman and inflamed the blood of the patriotic folk about that day, resulting in a fracas. Furthermore, 1797 is a little late – the first English top hat is recorded in 1793, made by one George Dunnage.
Despite this alleged turbulent start, the top hat found favour with the early Metropolitan Police, for two reasons. First of all, its added height enabled them to be easily seen on the crowded streets of London (vital for traffic control). Secondly, police hats were made with a reinforced frame that allowed their wearers to stand on them when they needed to see over people’s heads.
Despite its upper class reputation, in its first few decades the top hat was actually a fairly universal form of dress. No gentleman would be seen in public without it, no matter how battered it became. It would be made of rabbit fur or, if you were more wealthy, of beaver fur from Canada. This was gradually replaced with silk, which impacted rather sharply on the Canadian economy at the time.
As the 19th century went on, the type of person who would be seen in a topper changed. Initially, it was the sort of thing any chap might wear. However, for the working or lower-middle-class man, by the middle of the nineteenth century the cheaper and more portable bowler or fedora became the hat of choice. At the same time, Prince Albert’s adoption of the top hat had the upper class scrambling for one of their own. As they became less popular with the masses, so they became more popular with figures of authority as distinctive forms of identification – policemen, postmen, bus conductors, steamer captains.
By the 1890s, they were firmly out of favour as day-to-day wear. If you wanted to depict an old duffer out of touch with the modern world, you’d depict him in a top hat. Left-wingers came to view it as a symbol of capitalism.
Strangely enough, though, they never quite went out of fashion as an item of ultra-formal wear. Politicians and diplomats were still wearing them into the 1960s. On British Railways, the Stationmasters at the grand termini were expected to meet the top-link express trains wearing one into the 1950s. And of course, they’re still worn at weddings.
These days, a proper fur felt top hat will set you back a small fortune (at least, by the standard of impecunious oiks such as Yr. Humble Chronicler). James Lock & Co of London charges £550 for a high-crowned topper and £350 for an ordinary man-about-town job. Silk hats are, alas, no longer manufactured although – bonus for the impoverished gentleman on the street – wool felt hats can be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost of a fur hat, with the added advantage that you don’t have to feel guilty about it. My own hat, for instance, was £20 in a sale. I feel quite the foppish macaroni.