No hat projects a sense of formality and authority like a top hat. Straight and stiff, these tall, felt hats with flat tops, circular crowns, and narrow rims evolved from postilions, which were popular in the Renaissance and had pointed crowns. The French called such hats Rubens while the English called them Rembrandts, both references to their predominance in paintings of that period.

By the late 18th century, country gentleman out for an afternoon horseback ride wore top hats similar to those we know today. Like many hats of that period, these were made of beaver felt, but in 1790 the first silk plush top hat made its debut on the streets of London. The wearer was a hatter named John Heatherington, and his hat created such a stir that he was cited for “frightening timid people” and was obliged to post bond in order to stay out of jail.

A few years later, in 1793, a Middlesex hatter named George Dunnage made a top hat out of silk shag, a type of plush. To give the hats body, a felt underlay was added to the hat’s construction—shellacked gossamer, which reduced the weight of the hats and gave them extra stiffness, were common by the mid-1800s.

During these decades, the top hat changed little, an exception being the Wellington, which was a type of top hat with concave sides that was popular in some circles during the 1820s and ’30s. Mostly, though, the crowns just kept getting taller.

One of the hat’s most famous customers was Abraham Lincoln, who favored stovepipes, as the tallest top hats were often called, for formal occasions. It’s rumored that the President also used his hat as a briefcase, securing important papers to its insides. Meanwhile, magicians reveled in what they could hide (or appear to hide) inside their top hats (white rabbits), while authors such as Lewis Carroll created top-hat-wearing characters like the Mad Hatter.

Through the century, top hats remained popular with equestrians, men and women, and would remain so even into the 1920s. Female riders often wrapped the bottoms of their hats with a sheer silk scarf, for reasons that probably ranged from modesty to eye protection.

It’s no accident, then, that J. M. Flagg’s famous World War I recruiting poster featured a version of Uncle Sam wearing a top hat. By then the hat had become an unquestionable symbol of power and authority. But appeals to patriotism aside, the hat was soon also associated with less stirring forms of power, such as the greed of tycoons and fat cats. Top hat sales tumbled as men embraced straw hats and fedoras and women took to the cloche...

The top hat reclaimed some respectability in 1935 with the release of “Top Hat,” a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film that gave audiences numbed by the poverty of the Great Depression a peek at the good life enjoyed by swells dancing cheek to cheek in top hats and tails.

By the 1960s, the top hat returned again. This time it was worn by Willy Wonka, who is depicted on the 1964 first-edition cover of Roald Dahl’s children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in a stovepipe that would have made Honest Abe blush.

Even the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia donned one—he was famously photographed in the Haight-Ashbury saluting the camera in a red, white, and blue top hat. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, and Slash of Guns N’ Roses are just a few of the other rock stars who have employed the top hat to great theatrical effect.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Des Chapeaux

Des Chapeaux

A French tribute to women's hats and other headwear from the 1940s... primarily magazine images, with some commenta… [read review or visit site]

American Hatpin Society

American Hatpin Society

Who knew there was so much to hatpin collecting? This site is all about great hatpin images - from recent hatpin co… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

1900 Era~scott & Co.~beaver & Silk Men's Antique Top Hat W/orig. Leather Case~Spiers & Sons Of London Top Hat Stove Pipe , 1820s Beaver Skin The Real ThingC 1890's Antique Victorian Brown Leather Top Hat Box Carrying Case W Insert YqzGucci Guccissima Signature Flat Top Baseball Cap Hat With Grommets & Dust BagVintage Dobbs 5th Ave-black Silk Popup Top Hat-j L Hudson Co. Detroit...nrSummer Beige Foldable Straw Hats Fashion Sun Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearVintage Black Beaver Top Hat Early Derby/bowler Steampunk Hat Xxxxx 7 1/8 57Vintage Top Hat Paris Black 100% Wool Felt Victorian Mad Hatter Formal Top Hat Adult Mens S/mBlack Satin Wedding Top Hat Sateen Ribbon Accents Formal Prom AttireMini Steampunk Tea Party Fascinator Cocktail Top Hat GothicAntique Early Men's Beaver Skin Fur Top Hat PhiladelphiaStylish Beige Foldable Straw Hats Fashion Sun Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearWine Red Army Cadet Military Sailor Cap Flat Top Hat Leather Buckle Unisex WomenNwt Poplollies Boutique Smocked Cat Hat Top/pants Black Chevron 2t SchoolNew Men's 100% Real Leather Black Top Cap/ Fedora Hat / Leather TrilbyHot Sale! Summer Hat Foldable Straw Fashion Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearLoft M Novelty Slub Knit Top Hat Girl Bicycle Flowers Artsy Embellished White EcAntique , Vintage Men's Stove Pipe Beaver Silk Top Hat By Dunlap & Co WashingtonMillionaire$ Club Baseball Cap/hat-new Era 59fifty 7 3/4" Monopoly Top Hat/new!!Mini Steampunk Tea Party Fascinator Cosplay Top Hat Gothic Mad HatterTop Hat Capas Design Straw Hat With Hat BoxAffliction Skull In Top Hat T-shirt Black Large Made In Usa Vintage Black Top Hat Rhg Hat CompanyLight Coffee Summer Hat Foldable Straw Fashion Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearVintage Top Hat, Made In Paris Mens Black Satin Top Hat. New Never Worn! Kansas Jayhawks Top Of The World "college Slam One-fit Cap" Kansas Jayhawks Hat Mini Steampunk Tea Party Fascinator Cocktail Top Hat Gothic NightmareMaeve Anthropologie Adorable Red Hat Print Summer Shirt Top Sz 4Top Stitch Red Hat Society Women's S/s Shirt Purple Red Hats Size Medium3pcs Boy Kids Swimsuit Top Pants Hat Set Swimmer Surfing Bathing Suit 7-8 Years1 Pc Hat Unisex Warm Winter Knit Cool Cap Hip-hop Beanie Hats Black Color Top R