The Histories of the Topper

The Histories of the Topper

From 1793 to today is a long story of Top hats, Toppers, Opera hats, Gibuses, and High Hats; but it is all explained here. And starting at the very beginning…

 

Top Hats as we know them, began to usurp the Tricorne by the end of the 1700s. The first silk top hat was made by a hatter named George Dunnage in 1793. In 1797 a fop and hatter, John Hetherington, promenaded down The Strand wearing a Top Hat; there was public outrage and the Times reported: “the sight of his hat caused a sensation, people booed, several women fainted…..and a small boy got his arm broken in the crush”. He was consequently arrested and made to pay a £50 fine (£7872.98 today), for “appearing on a public highway wearing upon his head, a tall structure calculated to frighten timid people”. Not long after it’s ignominious outing, just twenty years later, and top hats, or ‘Toppers’, were popular across the social classes as a hat of status and celebration. Even the working class began wearing them at weddings. The first Top Hats were made of fine Beaver Fur, and were worn by the upper classes.

 

An acceptable alternative was Rabbit Furfelt. The Top Hat also became part of the uniform worn by Sir Robert Peel’s police force, thinking that the height of the hat would give them authority. This early police version was topped with an oilcloth and specially hardened, for obvious reasons. In the 19th century, the Top Hat or ‘Topper’ was worn as a groomsman’s Hat, until the 1st Earl of Leicester took objection to such formal and well turned out commoners and commissioned the formulation of a lower crowned riding hat, known now to us as the ‘Bowler’, created in 1849.

During the 19th century, beaver fur became rare and more expensive, being replaced by the more impressive silk or "Hatter’s Plush". Beaver Fur was still worn by traditionalists, but the shine and grandeur of the silk quickly took over.

The Topper continued to develop throughout the 19th century, with the "Wellington" style being popular in the 1820’s/30s, a tall hat with concave sides. By the 1840s and 50s though the Top Hat reached the height of it’s popularity with ever taller variations, with more extreme brims, concave curls, with ever more scalloped and engineered structures. The dynamic between the brim and the crown became more diverse, culminating in the Stovepipe hat, a tall, straight sided structure, small, intensely curved brim, it was nicknamed the "Chimney Pot". It’s most famous advocate was Abraham Lincoln while president and its rumoured he kept important correspondence inside his hat!

From the mid-19th century the middle classes adopted the Top Hat as a symbol of status and respectability, after Prince Albert adopted it as his headwear of choice. The silk hatters plush led to a sharp decline in beaver trapping in N.America and of beaver hats in general. This decline has continued and is now rarely available.

The ‘Gibus’ was developed by Antoine Gibus in 1812, patented in 1837, as the classic Theatre or Opera Hat, to be worn with evening wear. It was sprung inside with a collapsible mechanism, it allowed the top hat to be collapsed down almost flat. It is also known as a ‘Chapeau Claque’ for the sound it made when snapping up into shape. Rather poetically, James Lave observed that a meeting of "toppers" looked like factory chimneys, and reflected the industrial era of the time.

The top Hat developed slightly differently between the two centres of 19th century fashion, England and France. In England, dandies wore accentuated, flared crowns with curled brims which swooped down at the front. Their French cousins, known as the “Incroyables”, began wearing hats of ever more outlandish dimension, to the extent that until the Gibus hat was developed, cloakrooms struggled to cope with their burgeoning scale.

Topper, Opera Hat (the Gibus) and from the 1920s, the High Hat, are all terms for the Top Hat.

At its peak in popularity a reaction developed against the top hat, seen as the reserve of the oppressive ruling class and middle class professionals began wearing the Bowler Hat or Fedoras, Trilbys and the rise of the Homburg as a slightly less formal alternative for the opera and more practical for town-wear. These styles were also cheaper and easier to produce on a block press, and for mass production; whereas a Topper still needs to be handmade by a master Hat-maker, using a five piece wooden clock.

Through its many iterations, The Topper has remained a symbol of sartorial elegance and class, and is still worn today to occasions such as Ascot and weddings.

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