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A top hat, silk hat, cylinder hat, chimney pot hat or stove pipe hat (sometimes also known by the nickname "topper") is a tall, flat-crowned, broad-brimmed hat worn prior to and including the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, it is usually worn only with morning dress or white tie, as servants' or doormen's livery, or as a rock fashion statement.


Top hats started to take over from the tricorne at the end of the 18th century; a painting by Charles Vernet of 1796, Un Incroyable, shows a French dandy (one of the Incroyables et Merveilleuses) wearing such a hat. The first silk top hat in England is credited to George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex, in 1793.

Within twenty years top hats had become popular with all social classes, with even workmen wearing them. At that time those worn by members of the upper classes were usually made of felted beaver fur, while those worn by working men were made of rabbit fur; the generic name "stuff hat" was applied to hats made from fur. The hats became part of the uniforms worn by policemen and postmen (to give them the appearance of authority); since these people spent most of their time outdoors, their hats were topped with black oilcloth.

During the early part of the 19th century felted beaver fur was replaced by silk "hatter's plush", though the silk topper met with resistance from those who preferred the beaver hat. A short-lived fad in the 1820s and 1830s was the "Wellington" style of top-hat with concave sides. The peak of the top hat's popularity in the 1840s and the 1850s saw it reach its most extreme form, with ever higher crowns and narrow brims. The stovepipe hat was a variety with mostly straight sides, while one with slightly convex sides was called the "chimney pot". The stovepipe hat was popularized in the US by Abraham Lincoln during his presidency; it is said that Lincoln would keep important letters inside the hat.

During the 19th century the top hat developed from a fashion into a symbol of urban respectability, and this was assured when Prince Albert started wearing them in 1850; the rise in popularity of the top hat led to a decline in beaver hats, sharply reducing the size of the beaver-trapping industry in North America.

A Gibus or (also called a Chapeau Claque because of the noise the springs make when the hap is expanded) is a type of folding top hat worn to events such as operas. The hat has springs inside allowing it to be folded flat by hand and stored away. It was invented by a Frenchman called Antoine Gibus in 1812, and was patented in 1837. Invented for convenience at the opera, they are used as eveningwear.

James Laver once made the observation that an assemblage of "toppers" looked like factory chimneys and thus added to the mood of the industrial era. In England, post-Brummel dandies went in for flared crowns and swooping brims. Their counterparts in France, known as the “Incroyables,” wore top hats of outlandish dimensions that there was no room for them in overcrowded cloakrooms until Antoine Gibus came along in 1823 and invented the collapsible top hat. Such hats are often called an opera hat, though the term can also be synonymous with any top hat, or any tall formal men's hat. In the 1920s they were also often called high hats.

However, at its peak in popularity a reaction developed against the top hat, with the middle classes adopting bowler hats and soft felt hats such as fedoras, which were more convenient for city life, as well as being suitable for mass production. In comparison, a top hat needed to be handmade by a skilled hatter, with few young people willing to take up what was obviously a dying trade. The top hat became associated with the upper class, becoming a target for satirists and social critics. It was particularly used as a symbol of capitalism in cartoons in socialist and communist media, long after the headgear had been abandoned by those satirised.It was a part of the dress of Uncle Sam and used as a symbol of US monopoly power. By the end of World War I it had become a rarity in everyday life, though it continued to be worn daily for formal wear, such as in London various positions in the Bank of Englandmarker and City stockbroking, or boys at public schools.

The top hat persisted in politics and international diplomacy for several years. In the Soviet Unionmarker, there was a fierce debate as to whether its diplomats should follow the international conventions and wear a top hat, with the pro-toppers winning the vote by a large majority.

Top hats are associated with stage magic, in particular the hat trick. In 1814, the French magician Comte became the first conjurer on record to pull a white rabbit out of a top hat though this is also attributed to the much later John Henry Anderson.

Top hats also appear as a party hat and are popular in Goth subculture.


A silk top hat is made from hatters' plush, a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap. This is very rare now, since it is no longer in production, and it is thought that there are no looms capable of producing the traditional material any more; the last looms being destroyed by the last owner after a violent breakup with his brother. Because of this, the second hand top hat market is very lively, with antique models in wearable condition being sold for more than £5000 ($10'000), so much so that it is the one item of second-hand clothing in a royal wardrobe. Silk top hats can be inherited, bought refurbished or bought second-hand and then refurbished if necessary.

Top hats in the present

The standard top hat is a hard, black silk hat, with fur now often used. The acceptable colors of hats are much as they have traditionally been, with white hats (which are grey), a daytime racing color, worn at the less formal occasions demanding a top hat, such as Royal Ascot, or with a morning suit.

The collapsible silk opera hat, or crush hat, always black, is still worn on occasions worn with evening wear as part of white tie, and is still made by a few companies, since the materials, satin or grosgrain silk, are still available. The other alternative hat for eveningwear is the normal hard shell.

Today, top hats are worn to signify wealth, independence or flamboyance, fusing glorification of the past with contemporary fashion.


  1. (referenced in Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity by Ulrich Lehmann)
  2. (referenced in Ascot Top Hats)
  3. Colin McDowell, Hats: Status, Style, and Glamour, 1992, p. 74. ISBN 0847815722.
  4. QI, A Series, Episode 3
  5. Oxford English Dictionary (1989). 2nd. Ed.
  6. Storey, Nicholas, History of Men's Fashion. pp. 138, 139

Further reading

  • Neil Steinberg, Hatless Jack — The President, the Fedora and the Death of the Hat, 2005, Granta Books

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