‘Tis the Season for Top Hats

by Miranda Hilderbrand

    There is just something about top hats that coincide perfectly with the Holiday season. Be it their sophisticated appearance, their donning by festive carolers or even their aire of magic and mystique, the top hat is an absolute must around the holidays and, by far, one of the most popular and well known hats in existence.

     A top hat can be described as having a tall, flat crown with a broad brim which is usually curled on the sides. They were predominantly worn from the latter part of the 18th Century to the middle of the 20th Century by the urban middle and upper class. In the early 21st Century, the top hat was usually only worn with for black tie events and was very much associated with the upper class. Today the top hat has risen to new popularity and is worn for various occasions by many different people. From wedding parties and formal events, to musicians and folks searching for the perfect costume and to quite a few folks for whom it is simply their hat of choice, the top hat has its place in today’s society.

     With such a unique hat, it of course has an equally unique history. The creation of the first silk top hat is credited to George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex, England, in 1793. However the most famous story of the top hat, which many associate with its creation, came in 1797 with John Hetherington. When he first wore his silk top hat on the streets of London, its great height and shiny silk luster incited terror and panic. An officer at the scene was quoted saying “Hetherington had such a toll and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.” This incident resulted in Hetherington earning a £500 fine. Despite its initial setback, the top hat became an important hat for politics, literature and fashion. The top hat has since evolved into numerous styles including the flared Mad Hatter, the tall and straight stovepipe, the compact Coachman and the collapsible opera hat.

     One of the earliest political icons known for his top hat was President Abraham Lincoln. It has been said that he would keep important letters and documents inside of his hats so it is no surprise he was almost always seen wearing a silk stovepipe hat throughout his presidency. Top hats became part of formal wear for the United States presidential inaugurations for many years. While many put the blame on Kennedy for the top hat no longer being a part of presidential inaugurations, President Eisenhower was the first president to omit the top hat from his attire for the inauguration. President Kennedy wore one to the inauguration but removed it for his speech. President Johnson did not wear a top hat for any part of his inauguration in 1964 and one has not been worn since for this purpose.

     Since their creation in the late 18th century, top hats have been featured in many wonderful pieces of literature. One of the most famous being the hat worn by the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He 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. Sherlock Holmes was often depicted wearing a top hat and a black coat in Sidney Paget’s Strand Magazine illustrations. Raskolnikov from the novel Crime and Punishment wore a top hat as well. There are many, many more in literary history, can you name a few?

    The holiday season is without a doubt a time for top hats to shine. Many are given as wonderful gifts under the Christmas tree while many are worn for numerous festive events throughout the season. If you have ever pondered about owning a top hat and are curious to see which one is perfect for you, there is no time like the present to find your own wonderful hat for your collection. Who knows, maybe there is one waiting to be unwrapped under your tree.

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