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    

True Vintage Re-designed 40s 50s Periwinkle Blue Wool Felt Abstract Tilt Top HatVintage 1940's Mens Dobbs Fifth Ave. Beaver Fur & Silk Black Top Hat (near Mint)Jaunty 40's Olive Grn Top Hat Tilt W/lrg Plume & VeilAntique Vintage Bannock Bros Truly Warner Silk Plush Top Hat Brook Brothers BoxVintage Early Mens All Black Fine Silk Mccue Brothers Drummond Ny Signed Top HatLs Nwt Persnickety Nob Hill Pink Fancy Hat Bubble Tee Top 12Vintage Antique Black Silk Top Hat In Original Box Large Size 7 1/8 LondonDeluxe Genuine Black Leather Guns N Roses Slash Style Mens Top Hat French 1940s Black Felt Tilt Topper Hat By " Hosette " Paris Flower On Top True Vtg 1940s Ny Creation Chocolate Straw Braid Tilt Top Ring Hat W Spider VeilNew Kid Baby Boy Romper Top + Hat + Long Pants Outfit Sets Toddler 9-12m OwlSteampunk Red Leather Look Top Hat With Rustic Compass, Goggle With Compass LensVintage Beaver Skin Top Hat Made By Square Hatter Chicago Ill. Early 1900sLs Nwt Persnickety Nob Hill Pink Fancy Hat Bubble Tee Top 12 MonthsStrathmore Bench Made Men's Wool Top Hat Grey Black Banded Leather Inner BandMini Black Top Hat Fascinator Fancy Dress Moulin Rouge Victorian BurlesqueMen's Sz L Boxer Shorts Vineyard Vines By Shep & Ian Mermaids Santa Top & HatNew Era 9fifty Nfl Carolina Panthers Football Top Snapback Cap Hat NwtVictorian Beaver Skin Top Hat With Leather Case Dunlap & Co. Extra Quality Steampunk Green Leather Look Top Hat With Metal Embossed Cog GogglesAntique Cream Colored Fur/felt? Top HatBebe Top And Hat Bundle Lot 0f 6 Vintage 1960's 70's Felt Hats Fedora Top Hat Mallory Black Hat Box Leather Strap 12 1/2" By 14 3/4" Picture Of Man ,top HatAntique English Old Bond Street Preston & Co London Top HatWine Red Army Cadet Military Sailor Cap Flat Top Hat Leather Buckle Unisex Women3pcs Baby Girl Kid Ruffle Top+ Pants+hat Clothes Costum Outfit Fit 12-18m /a013Antique 1800's Sitterley Co. Pa Beaver Silk Top Hat W/ Orig. Box Red Hat Society Women Top & Pants Purple Size Xl Usa MadeTop Navy Blue Pu Leather Men's Outdoor Golf Baseball Snapback Fashion Hat Cap Mini Boden Long Sleeve T Shirt Top With Girl & Hat. Size 9-10 Y. Euc!3pcs Newborn Baby Girl White Dress Ruffle Top + Pants + Hat Clothes Outfit 0-6mNew Top Knit Size 3x Halloween Spiders Witches Hat Cats Studs 3/4 Sleeve CottonVintage Tan Felt -grey Trim Men's Top HatLolita Gothic & Medieval Black Lace Mini Top Hat With Purple FlowerBlack Word Printed Men's Outdoor Golf Baseball Snapback Fashion Hat Cap New Top3pcs Newborn Baby Girl Dress Kid Ruffle Top + Pants + Hat Clothes Outfit 6-12mOutdoor Sport Infantry Military Army Tactical Flat Top Hat Patrol Fidel Cap NewPlaid Kids Fedoras Baby Cap Dicer Top Fedora Hat For Infant Toddler 2-8 Years Silk Or Beaver Top Hat, Side Saddle Or OperaMini Steampunk Tea Party Fascinator Cocktail Top Hat GothicVintage Plastic Adams Top Hat Gift Certificate In Original Box Nwt $24 Self Esteem Penquin Top With Matching Hat, Size 5, From NordstromKhaki Word Printed Men's Outdoor Golf Baseball Snapback Fashion Hat Cap New TopNewborn Kid Baby Girl Dress Ruffle Top+ Pants+hat Clothes Outfit Fit 0-6m /a16Top Of The World Kentucky Wildcats Blue Plaid Towboggan Winter Hat1pc Basic Wear Grey Sun Beach Outdoor Newsboy Cap Hat Flat Top Adjustable Eac6Fashion Gray Winter Casual Unisex Knit Skull Beanie Ski Cap Hip-hop Wool Hat TopPlaid Kids Fedoras Baby Cap Dicer Top Fedora Hat Fit Infant Toddler Black+whitePlaid Boys Fedoras Baby Cap Dicer Top Fedora Hat Fit Infant Toddler NavyInfantry Cadet Military Army Tactical Flat Top Hat Patrol Fidel Cap Acu CamoNavy Blue Printed Men's Outdoor Golf Baseball Snapback Fashion Hat Cap New TopSteampunk Top Hat With Map PrintHarley Davidson Baby Outfit Top/pants/hat Size 3/6m. New With TagsVintage Planar-merino Gray 100% Wool 23" Xxl 5" Tall Steampunk Top Hat Very Old Vtg Tuscan Lamb Skin Fur Hat Retro Funky! Shaggy Soft White Round Cone Top Hot!!Women Braided Warm Rageared Baggy Winter Beanie Knit Crochet Ski Hat Cap Top NewFake Fur Fun Top Hat Black & White, Soft FoamTop New Winter Fashion Vertical Grey Stripes Beanie Hat Knitted Wool Hat CapsW. C. Feilds Style Top Hat