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Why Don't We Wear Top Hats Anymore?

Why Don't We Wear Top Hats Anymore?

For more than 100 years the top hat ruled the fashion world. But today, unless you happen to be attending the Royal Ascot races in England, are a stoned neo-hippie wearing a floppy, patchwork version, are a steampunk with one featuring metal gears and feathers, or are the rapper T-Pain, you’re not going to be caught dead in one. The rise and fall of the top hat is intertwined with technology, tastes, convenience, and even the whims of a few U.S. presidents.

The rapper T-Pain sporting one of his many top hats at the 2008 Video Music Awards. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In mid January 1797, a British hat maker named John Hetherington caused quite a stir on the streets of London when he was seen wearing a modified riding hat featuring a wider brim and taller crown. It was such an oddity a large crowd soon gathered around to gawk at it resulting in the police arresting Hetherington on a charge of disturbing the public order. According to the officer, due to the strange appearance of the millinery monstrosity "various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling."

Hetherington had to put up a large bond for his indiscretion, but defended himself by stating before the court that he hadn't broken any laws and was merely exercising his right as an Englishman to wear whatever he wanted to on his head. 

The next day The Times of London took the hat maker's side. "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."

The story of Hetherington's bold (and possibly criminal) fashion statement has been oft repeated over the years, including in an issue of Harper's Weekly in 1913, and in an Australian newspaper in 1927, with most articles citing an 1899 issue of the Hatter's Gazette  as the source of the story. We also came across this post from a writer who says he is a descendent of Hetherington and claims his forefather was likely the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter.

Whether true or not, by the early 19th century top hats were becoming very popular. So much so that beaver, the fur of choice for early versions, before silk top hats became all the rage, helped drive the animals to the brink or extinction in North America (this isn't to say that other hat styles that used beaver weren't also responsible for the creature's predicament). 

The painter William Sidney Mount photographed by Matthew Brady in the mid-19th century. Image via the Library of Congress. 

Throughout the 19th century the top hat was the go-to standard for discerning gentlemen but by the turn of the 20th century the top hat was moving away from everyday wear to being only trotted out for formal occasions such as weddings and the like. 

It seems the biggest reason top hats began to fall out of fashion had to do with the Industrial Revolution. Top hats were handmade by skilled milliners while other popular hat styles, such as bowlers and homburgs, could be mass produced, meaning they were cheaper to make. Plus, top hats were cumbersome (the collapsable variety less so), as compared with other styles. 

There was a brief resurgence in the top hat's popularity in the 1930s thanks to Hollywood, when such actors as Fred Astaire were seen on the silver screen wearing top hats and tails. Heck, Astaire even starred in a movie called "Top Hat" in 1935. It was a short lived revival and soon the only class of men still wearing the top hat were bankers in England, and men in the diplomatic service and in politics. 

By the mid-20th century even these few hangers-on were moving away from the top hat. Dwight Eisenhower didn't wear one for his inauguration in 1953, although he did don a top hat for John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 (Kennedy also wore one that day). The last president to be seen in a top hat was Richard Nixon. And with that the top hat was pretty much officially dead as gentlemanly head gear. And it wasn't long afterwards that hats in general became less popular (we'll explore that in a later blog post). 

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