What is a Top Hat?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

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.

Old-fashioned formal attire often included a top hat.
Old-fashioned formal attire often included a top hat.

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.

Top hats come in a variety of styles, such as the coachman, derby or bowler.
Top hats come in a variety of styles, such as the coachman, derby or bowler.

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.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


Is there anything special about a magician's top hat or are they just normal hats? I figured that they might have secret compartments built into them or magnets or something.


I found a really nice top hat and cane at a garage sale last weekend. I am not too sure what I will do with them seeing as how I do not have a tuxedo but they were cheap and they seemed like a good thing to have. They will probably languish in my closet until Halloween rolls around and then I will figure something out.


I used to have a friend that would wear a top hat whenever he went out. It was kind of his thing. He was mostly trying to get attention, and when you think about it there are a lot sillier looking hats than top hats.

It seemed to work. He had a lot of luck with the ladies. I think sometimes you need some silly gimmick just to get you noticed and then you can go about convincing the person that you are not in fact crazy.

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