Introduced during the early 1800s, the top hat became the most common men's hat of the nineteenth century. Worn by men of all classes, for all occasions, at any time of day, the top hat was a narrow-brimmed silk hat with a tall, straight crown and a flat top. Formal, dramatic, and imposing, the top hat represented much of the spirit of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which middle class and wealthy Europeans focused on elegance and formality in their dress and manners. The century even saw the first rabbit pulled out of a top hat by French magician Louis Conte in 1814.
The top hat had been preceded by other tall-crowned hats, most made of beaver fur felt and called beaver hats. When British hatmaker John Hetherington first wore his new creation, a tall, straight-crowned hat made of shiny silk, into the streets of London in 1800, passersby were shocked at first, but soon the top hat caught on. By the 1820s top hats were seen everywhere. The height and shape varied somewhat through the century, but the tall hat became the symbol of the nineteenth-century man.
The Romantic Movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in France, Germany, England, and America established an emotional, romantic style in literature, art, and clothing, and top hat designs reflected this flamboyant period with very tall crowns that tapered to wide tops and dashingly curved brims. Hats grew so tall that in 1823 a Frenchman named Antoine Gibus invented a collapsible top hat. Called an opera hat, it could be folded flat at the theater. During the next two decades, top hats became so tall and straight that they were given the name stovepipes. American millionaire J. P. Morgan (1837–1913) had a special limousine made with a high roof so that he could wear his hat in the car. Even women joined the fashion, as popular women's riding clothes included a top hat with an attached veil.
The 1900s brought a less formal attitude towards dress, and the top hat faded from popularity, to be replaced by shorter, less stately hats such as derbies and bowlers. Top hats came to be used only for very formal occasions. A remnant of the age of the top hat can be found in the English language slang "high-hat," meaning conceited or snobbish.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Henderson, Debbie B. The Top Hat: An Illustrated History of Its Styling and Manufacture. Yellow Springs, OH: Wild Goose Press, 2000.