What is a Top Hat?
A top hat is a tall firm cylindrical hat, sometimes slightly bowed with a flat crown. Top hats first became fashionable for men in the 19th century and are still popular today for both sexes. These days they are worn as a trendy fashion accessory or at formal occasions.
The Anatomy of a Top Hat
The top hat has a distinctive shape; it is very tall with a flat crown, which makes it easily recognizable in silhouette. Its brim is narrow and often slightly curved. A hat band is usually present, it may be thick or thin and feature a bow.
Originally, men’s top hats were made from beaver fur or silk. The silk top hat is not as common these days. Most modern versions are made from leather, felt, mesh or other materials, which are more durable than silk and less likely to be damaged.
Modern felt top hats are made using a special aluminum mold that applies a mix of heat and pressure to create the distinctive top-hat shape. Once cooled the felt stiffens and finishing touches are added, such as the liner, sweatband and hatband.
Unless they’re collapsible, top hats are usually transported in hat boxes or a suitcase if there is adequate room. It is recommended that soft items be packed around and inside the hat to support it during transit.
Top Hats and Dress Codes
The tall top hat remains a popular accessory at formal occasions where traditional western dress codes are observed. Some of these dress codes include white tie, black tie and morning dress. Top hats can also be worn with traditional frock coats and dress coats.
The Origins of the Top Hat
It is believed that the top hat was inspired by earlier tall hat styles of the 16th and 17th centuries. These include the capotain, sugarloaf and pilgrim hats. Around the 1770s, higher crowned, dark felt hats with wide brims started to be worn with country leisurewear.
By the 1790s, the black top hat had emerged and gained popularity in the upper and middle classes. They had replaced the previously popular tricorne (pirate style) and bicorne hats. Later, in the 1830s, silk replaced beaver fur and became the material of choice for the Victorian top hat.
Throughout history, top hats have also been referred to as high hats, cylinder hats, toppers, dandies, beavers, chimney pot hats and stovepipe hats. The stovepipe hat style was popularized in the United States by Abraham Lincoln during his presidency.
At one stage top hats became so tall (up to 12 inches high) that they became a problem for visibility in theaters. This led to the invention of a spring-loaded collapsible top hat, coined the ‘opera hat’ or Gibus.
The top hat is still a present symbol in popular culture today, often used to represent capitalism, enterprise and ambition. Such is the case with the well-known characters, Mr. Monopoly, Scrooge McDuck and even the Uncle Sam star-spangled top hat.
Top hats are also a symbol of the performing arts, particularly magic shows. The magician top hat was made famous by Louis Comte, who was the first to pull a rabbit out of one in 1814.
Wearing a Top Hat Today
There is no doubt that the top hat is still a distinctive accessory. It can bring character and style to any look, whether it be on the head of a wedding groom or a rock star. Famous celebrities such as Slash, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and the band ZZ Top have used top hats to create their unique style.
This much loved hat style has also been used to add finesse to popular fictional characters. These include the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and the Cat in the Hat from the famous Dr. Seuss book.
Men’s Top Hat Styles
Today, men’s top hats come in various styles, heights, colors and materials, such as leather, felt and mesh. You can even get a straw top hat if you desire and milliners can still create a bespoke silk top hat on request.
The leather top hat is a trendy casual accessory these days. Some are decorated wildly in the steampunk style. A ‘biker top hat’ is a shorter leather top hat featuring studs, chains or other metallic adornments. You might find some creative versions of these by searching online with terms such as “skull with top hat” or “snake with top hat”.
Women’s Top Hat Styles
Marlene Dietrich famously made the top hat fashionable for women in the 1930s when she wore it with a men’s style tuxedo. The top-hat-tuxedo look is still worn and celebrated today by prominent women and models such as Cara Delevingne.
Women’s top hats and mini-top-hat fascinators come in a variety of styles and colors perfect for all sorts of occasions. A white top hat could make a stylish wedding headpiece and a sparkly red top hat a fab party accessory.