When I think of the top hat, I tend to think of Abraham Lincoln or the ringmaster of a circus. As depicted in today’s pop culture, the top hat is typically a part of a costume or getup, something not to be taken seriously. However, quite the contrary to today’s ironic connotation of the top hat, the world, specifically during the Victorian Era, viewed the top hat as a trend for men.
The top hat is a tall black hat “typically made of silk mounted on a felt base” (Payne). The image I have chosen depicts a man supporting a brimmed top hat alongside his dog. This was common attire during the later years in Jane Austen’s life, at the start of the 19th century. In fact, the top hat was at times seen as a status symbol alongside many other fashion trends of the time.
The first top hat was worn in the mainstream by John Hetherington in 1797, as reported by the St. James’ Gazette (Payne). It almost immediately became a fashion statement, most popularized by George Bryan Brummel (“History of the Top Hat”). I think the reason the top hat caught on was very similar to the way current fashion trends catch on, by people seeing someone they admire wearing it. Many fashion trends, even in today’s world, start through a person of importance. I believe it is the same case with the top hat.
Although the trend started the same way in most, it changed throughout time. The top hat stayed a staple of Victorian Era England through the 1850s and into the United States well after that (especially with President Lincoln being known to wear one). It was a status symbol associated with “Victorian stuffiness and formality” (Payne). With that came some changes made to the structure of the top hat.
In fact, “various shapes evolved such as flatter brims or higher or lower crowns” (Payne). These were worn to operas which in turn forced theaters to adopt the idea of hat checkers (Payne).
However, the top hat did “fall out of favour in the early 20th century as slowly more casual styles of headwear, such as the bowler hat, became accepted for everyday wear” (Payne). Even considering the eventual downfall of the top hat, its popularity has made a lasting impact on Western culture, one that continues even to this day through people like ringmasters and the Mad Hatter.
Photo: “Regency Fashion: Men’s Breeches, Pantaloons, and Trousers.” Jane Austen’s World, 21 June 2013, janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/regency-fashion-mens-breeches-pantaloons-and-trousers/.
Payne, Alice. “The Story of … the Top Hat.” The Conversation, 15 Jan. 2020, theconversation.com/the-story-of-the-top-hat-26215.
“History of the Top Hat.” History of the Top Hat | Silk Top Hats .Eu, http://www.silktophats.eu/historytophat.html.