The History of Top Hat Styles and Etiquette
A History of Top Hat Types and Styles
Considered a symbol of urban respectability in the 19th century, there has never been a more sophisticated and dominating hat in fashion than the top hat. This is a history of this iconic hat, from its early origins to modern times.
The Top Hat Origin Story
Like every good origin story, the truth about the creation of the top hat is not without controversy. As covered in our guide to men’s hat styles, according to historical lore, the top hat was first worn in 1797 by the man widely credited as its inventor, haberdasher John Hetherington. Allegedly it created quite a stir as “a passersby panicked at the sight, several women fainted, children screamed, dogs yelped, and an errand boy’s arm was broken when he was trampled by the mob.” This led Hetherington to later be charged for “having appeared on the Public Highway wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shining lustre and calculated to frighten timid people.”
This is a fantastic story, however many fashion historians doubt its truth. According to them, the top hat is a descendant of the ‘sugar loaf hat,’ which was worn in medieval times. Originally made of pummeled and boiled beaver fur, the first models were quickly replaced by silk plush versions.
The Original Beaver Fur Top Hat
Hetherington may have invented the top hat, but George Brummel (1778-1840) popularized it. Brummel was the first English celebrity who was famous for being famous. He was a dandy (a man unduly devoted to style and fashion) that exquisitely cultivated an iconic style for himself, which then paired with his wealth, cleverness, and good looks, made him famous. According to lore, he spurned the flamboyant and decadent men’s fashion of his time and instead crafted his own style focused on simple, elegant, tailored attire. His beaver top hat was essential to his attire.
There were two fur options for top hats of the time: beaver and rabbit fur. Beaver fur was more expensive and sought-after because, unlike rabbit fur, it held its shape in the rain. As European beavers had been hunted to extinction by the 1500s, this new ‘beaver top hat’ craze created a huge economic opportunity for American companies, such as Hudson’s Bay Company, that were involved in the fur trade while sadly and unfortunately further contributing to the decimation of the beaver population.
From the beginning, due to their expense and rarity, beaver top hats were synonymous with wealth and upper class status.
The Origin of the Mad Hatter
Many top hat makers eventually showed signs of mercury poisoning since mercury was used throughout the hat making process when working with animal pelts. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include early-onset dementia and irritability, muscular spasms and tremors, and loss of hearing, eyesight, teeth, and nails. As the Mad Hatter was always shown with a topper and displayed many of these symptoms, it’s believed that the character was based on real-life mercury-poisoned top hat makers.
The Victorian-Era Silk Top Hat
By the 1830s, fortunately for the American beaver population, people began favoring silk plush top hats to fur ones. From the 1830s through the early 20th century, silk plush top hats of various shapes and sizes became ubiquitous with gentlemen of all classes. In the late 1960s, the only factory that produced silk plush fabric ceased production, so today there are a finite supply of silk top hats in the world, thus making them highly sought-after antiques.
The Top Hat’s Swan Song with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Despite falling out of favor in the early 20th century, and becoming associated with ‘Victorian stuffiness and formality,’ the top hat had one last big hoorah when featured in the 1935 movie Top Hat starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In the film, Astaire elegantly and effortlessly sports and famously dances while wearing a Victorian-era silk top hat.