Top hats

For other uses, see Top hat (disambiguation).

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, predominantly worn from the latter part of the 18th to the middle of the 20th century. As of the early 21st century, it is usually worn only with morning dress or white tie, in dressage, as servants' or doormen's livery, or as a fashion statement. The top hat is sometimes associated with the upper class, becoming a target for satirists and social critics. It was particularly used as a symbol of capitalism in cartoons in socialist and communist media, long after the headgear had been abandoned by those satirized. It was a part of the dress of Uncle Sam and used as a symbol of American monopoly power. By the end of World War II, it had become a rarity, though it continued to be worn daily for formal wear, such as in London at various positions in the Bank of England and City stockbroking, or boys at some public schools.

The top hat persisted in politics and international diplomacy for many years, including U.S. presidential inaugurations, last being used in 1961. Top hats are still associated with stage magic, both in traditional costume and especially the use of hat tricks.


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 20 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 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 stovepipe 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 stovepipe 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]

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 first patented in 1812.[10][11] This style of top hat was perfected using a spring-loaded construction by Antoine Gibus around 1840 [10][12] making it so popular that it was typically referred to as a gibus. The hats 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. The characteristic snapping sound heard upon opening a gibus suggested a third name, the chapeau claque, "claque" being the French word for "slap".[13] Collapsible top hats continue to be used with full-dress evening wear in the 21st century.

The top hat is sometimes associated with the upper class, becoming a target for satirists and social critics. It was particularly used as a symbol of capitalism in cartoons in socialist and communist media, long after the headgear had been abandoned by those satirized. It was a part of the dress of Uncle Sam and used as a symbol of U.S. monopoly power. The character Rich Uncle Pennybags, who personifies financial monopoly in the board game Monopoly, wears a top hat. (In addition, a top hat appears as a token in that game.)

By the end of World War II, it had become a rarity, though it continued to be worn daily for formal wear, such as in London at various positions in the Bank of England and City stockbroking, or boys at some public schools. Amongst the Japanese delegation that signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on 2 September 1945, the civilian members all wore top hats.[14]

The top hat persisted in politics and international diplomacy for many years. In the Soviet Union, there was a fierce debate as to whether its diplomats should follow the international conventions and wear a top hat, with the pro-toppers winning the vote by a large majority. Top hats were part of formal wear for U.S. presidential inaugurations for many years. President Dwight D. Eisenhower omitted the hat for his inauguration, and John F. Kennedy brought the top hat back for his inauguration (which is puzzling, since he later became famous for disliking all hats).

Kennedy did it in part to differ from Eisenhower (though Kennedy did not wear it at his swearing in and during his inaugural speech). However, the next president, 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.[15]

In the United Kingdom, the post of Government Broker in the London Stock Exchange which 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.[16] Although Eton College have abandoned the top hat as part of their uniform, it is still worn by "Monitors" at Harrow School with their Sunday dress uniform.[17] They are worn by 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.[18] Top hats may also worn at some horse racing meetings, notably the Epsom Derby[19] and Royal Ascot.[20]

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[21] though this is also attributed to the much later John Henry Anderson.[22]

A hazard of top hats is that a top hat could be accidentally (in a fall) or deliberately (by hooligans or robbers) knocked down over its wearer's eyes, and removing it sometimes needed help and some strength.


A silk top hat is made from hatters' plush, a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap.[23] 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 after a violent breakup with his brother.[24] The standard covering is now fur plush or melusine as 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. Many surviving hats are sized much smaller than the modern average size because peoples' heads in the past were smaller.


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.

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) as 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.[25]

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.

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 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,[26] 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.[27]

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.[28] 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.


In Freemasonry, top hats are often associated with the position of Worshipful Master as they are the only member allowed the privilege to wear one, or another appropriate head covering to signify their leadership within the lodge. It is also common for Worshipful Masters to receive top hat related trinkets and gifts on either the day of their installation or as a going away present.[29] In other countries, especially within 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.[30] 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.[31]

In literature

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).

Sherlock Holmes is often depicted in Sidney Paget's Strand Magazine illustrations wearing a black top hat, particularly when moving about the city in a black Inverness coat.[32]

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.[33]

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.

See also

Fashion portal
  • Shako, a tall, cylindrical military cap.


Further reading

  • Neil Steinberg, 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.


This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.