Enduring High Style: The Iconic Top Hat

The Iconic Top Hat
The Iconic Top Hat

The “Top Hat” has remained a “Topper” of style throughout its inception into the world of fashion. Worn with sophistication and elegance by debonair, suave men for centuries, the high topper of style remains a classic icon. A “fine and dandy”, dapper accessory of style that is reminiscent of more elegant times, for certain. This iconic emblem of the tall and elegant top hat has indeed endured in men’s fashion as an element of high style. It is interesting to note that the word “Debonair” in Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is described as “A debonair man in a suit and top hat”. Debonair, indeed.

The top hat, with its flat crown and broad brim, was predominately worn from the latter part of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century. Historically referred to as a “High Hat”, “Beaver”, “Silk Hat”, “Cylinder Hat”, “Chimney Pot Hat” and “Stove Pipe Hat”, the top hat has also gained the nickname of “Topper”. Topped off in style, for certain. As to the credit of this silk top hat, the true credit has a varied inception. The “Top Hat” was worn in the 16th century yet the silk “Top Hat” is said to have to come into existence in 1797 in France. From France this tall hat found its way to fashion gentlemen in England, the Netherlands and eventually the rest of the world that would be charmed by its height and character. But where does the credit for the aspirations of this tall hat belong? A hatter from Middlesex England, George Dunnage, is said to have acquired the credit in 1793 for this high fashion accessory. However, a more well accounted credit is to Haberdasher John Hetherington, who is said to have created quite a stir walking the streets of London with the new vision of height. Of interest, the French are said to have worn top hats of outlandish dimensions, challenging the height of the hat itself. Oh, the “height” of the elegant man! The invention of a collapsible top hat, or “Round Hat” became popular as “full dress” attire and allowed fine gentlemen to flatten their hats and stow with ease while attending the Opera or other evening events. Revolutionary style, indeed. Alas, we may never know from whom the height of inspiration of this tall icon came, but the fact that it is an towering icon will never change.

Not long after the introduction of the top hat, this hat of style became popular with all social classes. However, there were differences between the fabric of the hats that bestowed a fashionable presence on the heads of men. The members of the upper classes wore hats typically made of either black silk plush (a pile longer and less dense that velvet pile) or felted beaver fur (thus, the reference of the “Beaver” hat). The topper of working men gained a generic name of “Stuff Hat”, referring to those hats with various non-fur felts applied to its stately, yet more simplistic form. In fact, durable top hats layered in black oilcloth became an authoritative accessory to the uniforms worn by policemen and postmen. Who knew? As mentioned with the French’s appeal for extended height, it was during the 1840’s and the 1850’s that is said to have seen a rise of this topper in its most extreme form, with even higher crowns and more narrow brims. Alas, fashion changes! At the end of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century, the lustrous felted beaver hats would slowly be replaced by silk “Hatter’s plush” (a soft silk weave with a very long and defined nap, made in France). The silk topper met with resistance, however, from those who preferred its original application. No matter the preference, during the 19th century, the top hat developed from a fashion for fine dandy’s into a symbol of “Urban Respectability”. Fine gentlemen everywhere began to desire the style and presence that the top hat offered. The visual validation for this fashionable and regal statement occurred when Prince Albert of England bestowed a royal appeal to this hat of height by donning the top hat covered in “Hatters Plush” in 1850. The rest is royal fashion history that added inspiration to the world.

The associations to this silken hat of high style are many. Let’s not forget the magician and his “Top Hat”! In 1814, French magician, Louis Comte, was the first to withdraw a rabbit out of a top hat! The “Top Hat” that drew associations with the upper class eventually became a target for satirists and social critics. For many years, the “Top Hat” would persist as a visual emblem found within politics and international diplomacy, including U.S. presidential inaugurations (last used in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy). This is certainly the hat that inspired that iconic expression “High Hat” as a reference to snobbery and arrogance. All politics and social issues aside, it is the dapper style in dandy black that my focus looks upon…

Prince Edward of Great Britain, 1932
Royal Style: Prince Edward of Great Britain, 1932
The Iconic Adornment Of The Top Hat:  Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker & Fred Astaire
The Iconic Adornment Of The Top Hat: Marlene Dietrich/ Josephine Baker / Fred Astaire (Astaire’s 1936 Movie,”Top Hat”)
The Elegance Of The Tall Hat:  The Top Hat
The Elegance Of The Tall Hat: The Top Hat
Elegant Style Of A Flat Crowned Hat:  Top Hat Style
The Stunning Style Of A Flat Crowned Hat: Top Hat Style
The "Topped Off" Style Of The Tall Hat
The “Topped Off” Style Of The Tall Hat
Dapper & Dashing:  The High Top Of Style
Dapper & Dashing: The High Top Of Style
Towering Style:  The Iconic Top Hat
Towering Style: The Iconic Top Hat

Today “Top Hats” are available in a variety of materials, including stiff wool felt, soft wool and cotton velour and are found in a limited variation of shape and height. Modern takes on this grand topper include a shorter “Half Top” and the “Low Derby”. But, oh, the grandness of the classic “Top Hat”! And how to wear? Why, tilted, of course! Tilted forward and to one side, yet no more than 10 degrees in either direction. Who knew? It is certainly a tall structure with a shining lustre of sheen and indelible style.

And of the donning of this stylistically bold addition above the tresses of women? A fantastic homage of men’s style, for certain. Iconic women have donned it before. And why not? The allure of this classic hat is enduring. Consider the extraordinary appeal of this iconic hat. If but for one day out of the year, why not choose this topper of iconic and elegant style to see the rise of a New Year? Life is a celebration and the turning of a New Year calls for a return to elegance, grace and poise with refined, self-assurance. What better way to mark the moment and occasion by donning the “Top Hat”? Alas, there will always be an enduring allure for this topper of style. High style, indeed.



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