A short history of the top hat
Written by Steven MooreThe English Manner, The UK’s Leading Etiquette and Protocol Training Institute 310 310
Read it in 3 minutes
Synonymous with the good taste and style of the British upper class, but how much do you know about the history of the top hat, a most ever-so-British accessory?
It’s the 16th January 1797, and there’s a commotion on the streets of London. Dogs are barking; children are screaming and running away in fear. Women are fainting. What is this terror? It is none other than John Hetherington sporting his new ‘silk hat’.
This possibly apocryphal story is mentioned in The Hatter Journal one hundred years after it occurred and supposedly led to the arrest of Hetherington for causing a riot.
John Hetherington may have invented the top hat, but we do know they appeared towards the end of the 18th Century, becoming much more popular in the 19th, especially when Prince Albert began to wear one regularly.
The ‘silk’ of these ‘silk hats’ was silk plush, a luxurious material with a short nap that could be brushed in one direction to give the hat a lustre and sheen like no other. That last factory to make silk plush closed in 1968, and today, the best top hats are made with fur felt known as ‘Melusine’.
The first top hats were made from beaver felt and required long and complex processing. The Beaver pelts were imported from North America and were processed using mercury, which often led to those in the felt-making industry suffering from mercury poisoning, hence the term ‘mad hatters’. Thankfully for beavers and hatters, beaver fur fell in popularity around the 1830s.
The cost of a top hat, thanks to its complex manufacture, made them elite objects from the outset. Whilst we don’t know if John Hetherington did invent them in 1797, we do know that man-about-town Beau Brummel is seen holding one in his hand in a drawing in 1805.
The top hat was the height of fashion from the mid-19th Century right up to the Second World War, but instead fell out of favour afterwards. Today, top hats are still worn and are part of the white tie dress code, only seen on those formal occasions which require it.
Now you know the history of the top hat, you need to know the correct reason by the name.
Contrary to the popular belief that a ‘top hat’ is called such because it’s worn by the ‘top’ people, it is called a ‘top hat’ due to its height. So now you know!