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    

Genuine Antique Beaver Fur English Gentleman's Top Hat London 1800sFabulous French Antique Black Top Hat In Superb Condition Circa 1900Supreme Academy Top Camo Medium M Box Logo Pcl Le Bain Camp Cap Hat DsParis Silk Top Hat With Box Folding Collapsible Vintage 1900's?Tilley Men's Khaki Hat New. Great Deal Papers Inside Top Lifetime GuaranteeAntique Beaver/silk Top Hat With Leather Carrying Case Paris "fisher" Size 7 3/8Antique Black Panne Silk Plush Top Hat Early 1900's Broadway The Film DailyMud Pie Baby One 1 Year 12 Months First Birthday Ruffle Polka Dot Shirt Top HatStylish Beige Foldable Straw Hats Fashion Sun Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearLight Coffee Summer Hat Foldable Straw Fashion Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearLate 1800's Black Beaver Skin Top Hat By B & K Co., Providence, R.i.Black 100% Wool Felt Victorian Mad Hatter Formal Top Hat Adult Mens S/mBlack Womens Mens Vintage Hard Felt Wool Pork Pie Fedora Flat Top Hat Band Tuxedo Top Hat By Christy's London Black Traditional Fur Felt Size 7 1/43pcs Boy Kids Spider-man Swimsuit Top Pants + Hat Set Surfing Bathing Suit 5-6yGucci Guccissima Signature Flat Top Baseball Cap Hat With Grommets & Dust BagBronze Mini Steampunk Tea Party Fascinator Cocktail Top Hat Gothic CosplayConverse All Star Kid's Hi-top Dr Seuss Cat In The Hat Lace-up Shoes Sz 12 KidsAntique Silk Pop Up Top Hat Magician Steampunk Desmonds Los Angeles CaSummer Beige Foldable Straw Hats Fashion Sun Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearHot Sale! Summer Hat Foldable Straw Fashion Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearAntique Stetson Top Hat Collapsible BlackVintage Dorfman/pacific, Co, Inc. Felt Creamy Colored Top Hat W/ Original BoxWestern Cowboy/cowgirl Tooled Top Grain Brown/red Leather Hat Band 3/4" WideTop Flite Adult Osfa Golf Hat Cap Beige Distressed Logo Sewn Vintage Beautiful Black Hat With Purple Felt Pansey's On Top- Unmarked PillboxSean John New Black Knit Striped Ball Top Beanie Hat O/s BhfoVintage Customized Top HatCadet Box Ssu Black Army Camo Military Fashion Viosr Cap Top Hat Unisex1 Pc Hat Unisex Warm Winter Knit Cool Cap Hip-hop Beanie Hats Black Color Top RWomen Lady Winter Warm Knitted Crochet Hat Cap Red Korean Ball Top Button HatLadies Beige Hat Foldable Straw Hats Fashion Sun Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearGothic Style Black Velvet Top Hat W Black Rose-m/l 22.5-23" 7 1/4-7 3/8 Women Beige Hat Foldable Straw Hats Fashion Sun Hat Top Quality Beach HeadwearBoys Nike 2 Piece Baseball Bodysuit /top & Hat ~ Sz 0-3 Months ~ NwtCalvin Klein Pink Chenille Top + Pants + Hat 0-3 MonthsMen's Khaki Sports Baseball Flat Top Cap Outdoor Travel Canvas Hat Casual StyleWomen Ladies Flat Top Straw Pork Pie Bowler Derby Cap Sun Fedora Jazz Sun Hat 1pc Sweet Light Pink Sun Beach Outdoor Newsboy Cap Hat Flat Top Adjustable Eac11pc Classic Black Sun Beach Outdoor Newsboy Cap Hat Flat Top Adjustable Eac5Blue Canvas Three Rivet Style Flat Top Hat Plain Soft Visor Sun Camping Hiking