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    

Superb Unbranded Men's Large Tall Black Wool Top Hat Approx 7 3/8 - Uc H34Christys' London Black 100% Fine Fur Felt Top Hat Small 6 7/8 56 - Uc H34Antique Vintage Black Silk Top Hat Size 7 Large City Cork Hat CoAntique Vintage Stetson Steampunk Collapsible Opera Top Hat 1930s Size 7-1/4Vintage/antique Mans Black Silk Top Hat / 813-820Romantic Victorian Style Black Velvet Top Hat W Veil-m/l 22.5-23" Or 7 1/4-7 3/8100% Wool Men's Women's Black Victorian Mad Hatter Top Hat Adult New 58cm MediumNwt Poplollies Boutique Chevron Smocked Cat In The Hat, Thing 1, Top & Pants Sz4$98 Affliction Skull Top Hat Fight Biker Ufc Hoodie Sweat Shirt Jacket Men L NwtLeather Buckle Unisex Army Military Cap Flat -top Hat Student Hat Vintage Navy Vintage Steampunk Opera Karl Ulmer Rottweil Beaver Top Hat W/ Original BoxExtra Quality Silk Top Hat Dust Pad, Box ~ London Regent Droit MonogramMen Baggy Beanie Knit Cap Stripe Top Hat Slouchy Cap Oversize 2014 StyleBlack Leather Steampunk Gothic Corset Mens & Womens Top Hat W. Crossbone Badges100% Wool Black Victorian Mad Hatter Top Hat Adult New 61cm XlargeDorfman Pacific Mad Hatter Top Hat Steam Punk '95 Or '96. 7 3/8Fashion Men Women Boy Girl Top Hip-hop Snapback Embroidery Baseball Caps Hat H302014 Baggy Oversized Beanie Knit Top Hat Skull Cap Slouchy For Men WomenSean John New Black Striped Fold-over Ball Top Beanie Hat O/s BhfoMen Women Sports Flat Top Military Cadet Sun Travel Sports Cap Hat Army GreenTop Men's Fashion Kintted Vertical Stripes Warm Decorated Black Stretchy HatVintage Black Top Hat Beaver Silk Arthur Fisher Bldg Chicago Old Antique MensVintage "truly Warner" New York Every Where Top Hat, Signed And Dated!Vintage 1940 Wide Brim Tilt Derby Hat Straw Top/ Felt Kitten Bow And PinMens' Adidas High Top Basketball Shoes 11 1/2 W/ Fitted Hat!!!!Newborn Baby Girl Kid Ruffle Top+ Pants+hat Clothes Costum Outfit Fit 0-6m /a032014 Fashion Cat Ear Hat Children Of Lovely Twist Beret In Winter Black Top LxrBlack Leather Guns N Roses Slash Style Men's Top Hat Original Australian Design Ladies Vintage - Pill Box - Real Mink Fur Hat With Satin Top - Beautiful Antique Vintage Miller Bros 1879 Top Hat Steubenville OhioAfghanistan Pakol Hat Kufi Tribal Turban Warm Top Pakul Afghan Military Army CapNewborn Baby Girl Kid Ruffle Top+ Pants+hat Clothes Costum Outfit Fit 0-6m /f13Fascinator Mini Top Hat Block Made From Western Red Cedar Wood1pc Baby Beanie Knit Hat Cap Pom-pom Top 21cmx17cm(8 2/8"x6 6/8") E00447Top New Winter Fashion Vertical Grey Stripes Beanie Hat Knitted Wool Hat Caps3pcs Baby Girl Kid Ruffle Top+ Pants+hat Clothes Costum Outfit Fit 12-18m /a013Vintage Mens Borsalino Alessandria Silk Top Hat Sz 7 1/8Mercedes - Benz Cap Hat Denim Auto 100% Cotton Top Offer 3pcs Kid Baby Girl Ruffle Top+ Pants+hat Clothes Costum Dress Outfit 12-18m /a23Black Best Beautiful Slouchy Beanie Men Women Top Chic Hats Hip Hop Hat Mens Harley Davidson Black Flat Top Hat Osfa Adjustable Back NwotGirl Kid Baby Toddler Hat+top Dress Outfit 2-3y Sets Skirt Sleeveless Polka Dot Top Unisex High Quality Bandana Biker Hat Women Men Black Motorcycle Skull Cap1pc Classic Black Sun Beach Outdoor Newsboy Cap Hat Flat Top Adjustable Eac5Vtg Antique Baby Tatted Bonnet Hat Cap Button Back Wire Trim Top To Bottom 7"Free Shipping Top Pink Wide Large Brim Summer Beach Sun Hat Fashion Bowknot CapPlaid Kids Fedoras Baby Cap Dicer Top Fedora Hat Fit Infant Toddler Roseo2014 Nwe Male Baby Girl Children Double Ball Ball Hat Earmuffs Warm Hat Top LxrAntique Black Silk Beaver Fur Top Hat Stove Pipe Undertaker Jones Parnelle Lee7" Sinamay Fascinator Mini Top Hat W/blk Rooster Feathers & Veil 4 Season's Day!Euc Kissy Kissy Cotton 3pc Lot Baby Girl Poodle Floral Top Pants Hat 6-9 Mos Ferrari Cap / Hat , Red , 100% Cotton " Idea " Sport Top Offer Top Hat: Men's Black Silk Original Hat1pc Bright Blue Top Orange Visor Hip-hop Street Baseball Hat Cap Snapback Ebf1Winter Warm Hat Sea Horse Knitting Scarf Hat Sea Horse Collar Double Use Top1pc Orange Baby Beanie Knit Hat Cap Pom-pom Top 21cmx17cm(8 2/8"x6 6/8")3pcs Baby Girl Kid Ruffle Top + Pants + Hat Clothes Costum Outfit Fit 0-6m /f691pc Basic Wear Grey Sun Beach Outdoor Newsboy Cap Hat Flat Top Adjustable Eac6Black Feather Bowknot Hair Clips Lace Mesh Mini Top Hat Punk Gothic FascinatorRose Red Women's Wide Brim Panama Cloche Straw Chiffon Hat Summer Beach Top Cap