Often referred to as a topper, the top hat is a formal type of headwear for men. Originating in the early 19th century, the top hat has continued to be part of proper morning and evening dress for men when the occasion calls for a high level of elegance in dress. Here is some background on the history of the top hat, including contemporary uses of toppers.
The top hat is designed with a tall body, featuring a flat crown on one end and a wide brim that is either flat or slightly curved. Early on, the top hat was constructed with black felt. The felt was particularly workable with the collapsible top hats that were developed in the 1820s, since the felt would not show wrinkles even if the hat had been stored in a collapsed condition for an extended period of time. Over time, the use of beaver pelts to make the felt was surpassed by the use of dyed silk, providing a more polished look.
The stovepipe hat, popularized in the middle 19th century, was a favorite of American president Abraham Lincoln. Characterized by a body that was sometimes twice the height of other top hats, the stovepipe became a popular option for daily business wear, as well as part of formal dress. However, the trend of the stovepipe style of top hat died out by the end of the century. In fact, the top hat lost its appeal as a daily fashion accessory for men by the dawn of the 20th century, replaced by other forms of headwear, such as fedoras and bowler hats.
While the top hat continued to be a symbol of proper formal dress, the use of the hat tended to be relegated to events such as formal weddings, and high society events of the social season such as balls and debuts. The movie industry often included the top hat as part of essential dress when the motion picture was set in high society. During the 1960s, rock and roll musicians and other counter-cultural icons often adopted the top hat as part of an eclectic mode of dress.
Today, the top hat continues to be firmly established as formalwear, showing up on limited occasions that are considered to be extremely formal and important. While the era of the top hat as a common accessory in any man’s wardrobe is long past, the tradition will no doubt continue to live on as a sign of elegance and taste.