Some people believe that the popularity of sunglasses rendered the wearing of hats obsolete. Others believe it was the fault of automobile headrests because they pushed the hat off of one’s head. Regardless of the reasons, let us look briefly at the gentleman’s top hat…you know, as worn by Prince Albert, Abraham Lincoln, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Uncle Sam, Madonna and Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat.
There is an entertaining story of haberdasher John Hetherington of the Strand in London, having caused a mild riot when he ventured out on January 15, 1797 wearing his silk hat, a taller version of the gentleman’s riding hat. However, as this story of the riot with women fainting and his appearance before a magistrate did not exist until many years later, it is really believed that George Dunnage, another English hatter, in 1793 created the first silk top hat; at least he patented his design. There were earlier versions of the tall-crown hat made of beaver pelts that can be traced well back into the 1550s with some bearing jewels, feathers and ribbons. These hats tended to resemble what would later become called “stovepipe, high hat, cylinder hat or chimney pot” hats. The silk of the 1790s and later was brushed to give the appearance of fur, but they were fabric. Regardless of their credited creators, top hats were the order of the day for gentlemen. In fact, the wearing of a top hat was symbolic of status and authority. For example, London’s 1829 “Peelers” police force (established by Sir Robert Peel) wore blue tailed uniforms and top hats. Eventually, top hats were adopted by Eaton, banks and became mandatory for carriage drivers, doormen and other visible service providers to the well-heeled.
Currently on exhibit at the Museum are three different versions of the top hat as well as two different hat boxes; one for the top hat and another “bonnet” style box.
Top Hat Box - Manufactured at "A&NCSL" of 105 Victoria Street, Westminster. The Army & Navy Cooperative Society, Ltd., was founded in 1871 by a group of army and navy officers. Gift from Mr. and Mrs. Horace Burr (1981).
Three Top Hats (L-R): “Gaucho” style by Young Bros., Inc. of New York; “Stovepipe Hat” by Beebe & Co. of New York, and the traditional “Top Hat” by Scott & Company of England a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Horace Burr (1981).